Man found guilty
of running sweatshop

The American Samoan factory's owner
abused hundreds of workers

By Debra Barayuga

A jury has found the owner an American Samoan factory guilty of holding hundreds of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant workers in involuntary servitude in the largest human-trafficking case investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kil Soo Lee: He faces from 15 to 18 years in prison when he is sentenced on June 9

Kil Soo Lee, 52, was convicted yesterday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu following a four-month trial on 14 counts, including conspiracy, involuntary servitude, extortion and money laundering in what prosecutors called a case of "modern-day slavery."

The jury acquitted Virginia Soliai, Lee's secretary, and Robert Atimalala, personnel manager and later general manager at the factory, on each of eight counts charging them with conspiring with Lee to keep the workers under involuntary servitude.

Government prosecutors contended that Lee and his managers kept hundreds of recruited Chinese and Vietnamese workers confined at Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. in Pago Pago, American Samoa, between March 1999 and November 2000.

Prosecutors said Lee controlled when the workers worked, ate and got paid, and punished them for complaining about work conditions. He threatened workers with arrest, beatings and deportation if they complained or did not comply.

During one of these beatings in November 2000, a young Vietnamese worker had her eye gouged out with a plastic pipe.

But the defense argued that what really occurred at Daewoosa was a management labor dispute and that both sides were exercising their rights under labor laws to strike, walk out, work without a contract or refuse to work.

"This got distorted into an involuntary-servitude situation because the Vietnamese workers realized there were certain benefits in portraying this in such a way," said Alexander Silvert, assistant federal public defender who represented Lee. "Now (the workers) will be allowed to stay in the United States for the rest of their lives, become U.S. citizens and bring their families here."

Chinese and Vietnamese workers paid export labor companies up to $5,000 each to be able to work at the Daewoosa factory, where garments were produced for J.C. Penney Co. and other retailers before it came to the attention of the U.S. Department of Labor. The workers had come from communist countries where they made at most $30 a month and lived in what were described as "horrible" conditions.

Lou De Baca, one of three attorneys in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division who prosecuted the case, said Lee's conviction shows the department's firm commitment "to ensuring those who traffic in human beings are aggressively investigated, swiftly prosecuted and firmly punished."

"Kil Soo Lee has exploited over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese people in what amounted to nothing less than modern-day slavery," De Baca said.

Silvert said Lee, who faces from 15 to 18 years' imprisonment, was extremely disappointed and upset with the verdict, and they expect to appeal several issues, including jurisdiction.

The defense has maintained from the beginning that this case should have been tried in the territorial court in American Samoa, which has the authority and power as delegated by Congress to hear this case.

The government contended the case was brought to the first available federal District Court.

Two others -- Elakana Nu'uuli Ioane and Sialava'a Fagaima -- pleaded guilty in August 2001 to conspiring with Lee to deny the garment workers their right to be free from involuntary servitude.

Ioane, a former manager at the factory, admitted that at Lee's instructions, he directed Samoan laborers to beat Vietnamese workers to force them to work.

Fagaima, a Samoan garment worker, admitted to attacking Vietnamese workers and gouging out the eye of one of them.

That worker, Quyen Truong, has since had a partial eye transplant and now lives in Honolulu. She said she works at a job "making sandwiches" and takes classes at a community college.

Lee will be sentenced June 9, and Ioane and Fagaima in July.

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