‘Modern-day slavery’
trial nears end

By Debra Barayuga

The Korean owner of a garment factory in American Samoa and his managers kept hundreds of Chinese and Vietnamese workers under involuntary servitude because they wanted "cheap and compliant workers," federal prosecutors said.

"Work or be beaten" was the threat the workers lived under at the Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. factory in Pago Pago, said Robert Moossey, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice during closing arguments yesterday in U.S. District Court.

"That is modern-day slavery and that is a crime."

Kil Soo Lee, owner of the factory, his manager and head of security Robert Atimalala and personal assistant Virginia Soliai are on trial on a total of 17 counts, including conspiracy and holding workers under conditions of involuntary slavery between October 1998 and January 2001.

Lee is also charged with extorting money from one of the workers -- specifically a check given by the U.S. Department of Labor for back wages -- and laundering that check at the Bank of Hawaii in American Samoa.

Lee also faces a charge of bribing a bank official in connection with a $500,000 loan that he was trying to obtain.

The defendants "dominated" all facets of the workers lives, Moossey said. They controlled who worked, when and where they worked, when and where they slept, if and when they would get fed and paid, he said. They seized the workers' passports so they couldn't flee and threatened them with deportation and beatings if they complained or failed to obey, Moossey said.

During a beating in the factory in November 2000, one of the workers had her eye gouged out with a plastic pipe, prosecutors said.

The defense argued that the workers knew what they were in for when they signed the contracts to work at Daewoosa, where "Made in USA" garments for large U.S. retailers, including J.C. Penney Co., were produced.

The problems began when the workers arrived and realized the terms of the contracts, said Deputy Federal Defender Alexander Silvert. "From day one, there was a labor-management dispute."

He argued that the workers realized they could stay in the United States longer if they lied about what happened at Daewoosa.

The workers had come from a communist country -- making at most $30 a month and living in horrible conditions, he said.

Silvert said the Nov. 28, 2000, melee, in which the worker's eye was gouged out, started because immigration officials showed up and not because Lee ordered that the Vietnamese workers be beaten.

"The Vietnamese went ballistic and police had to come. That's what happened," Silvert said.

He said the workers, including the woman whose eye was gouged, "exaggerated" or lied about their treatment and the conditions at Daewoosa.

Attorneys for Atimalala and Soliai are expected to give their closing arguments today.

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