AMERICAN SAMOA: Vietnamese Workers Have Nowhere to Turn

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Orange County Register

More than 250 Vietnamese garment workers are stranded in American Samoa, lacking money, jobs and fearful of punishment if they return home.

They became castaways in the South Pacific through a Vietnamese government program created to send 1 million workers overseas by the year 2010, an effort to find employment for a labor force swelling by 1 million people a year.

They are caught in an American anomaly: recruited by the Vietnamese government to work for a Korean-owned company in a semiautonomous U.S. territory 5,000 miles from North America to sew "Made in USA" clothing for J.C. Penney stores.

The workers - mostly women - have sued their employer, Daewoosa Samoa, for nonpayment of wages, poor working conditions and brutality by their bosses. The trial is expected to continue into February.

One worker, Quyen Truong Thi Li, was beaten so badly in a fight between employees at the plant last November that she lost her left eye.

A Baptist church in Hawaii paid for her to go the islands last week to get an artificial implant.

"We're so far away from everything, and so small, that nobody sees what's going on," said Virginia Sudbury, an attorney for the workers in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa.

Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County say the seamstresses' plight illustrates the perils of Vietnam's overseas labor program. Local Vietnamese media have carried appeals for money, translators and other assistance on the workers' behalf.

"I don't think Vietnam has taken a role to ensure its people are protected and respec ted as laborers," said Daniel Do-Khanh, a Westminster attorney and Little Saigon activist. "That's why we make an issue of American Samoa."

American Samoa, a palm-fringed Polynesian archipelago halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, seems like a paradise compared to other places Vietnamese workers are being sent these days - Laos, Libya, Senegal. Last year, 40 Vietnamese women hired as domestic workers in Taiwan complained that their employers beat, starved or sexually abused them.

American Samoa law requires employers to follow U.S. Department of Labor standards, such as providing overtime pay after 40 hours, workers' compensation insurance and decent housing. But the minimum wage there is $2.60 an hour - half the $5.15 minimum on the U.S. mainland.

Vietnam's minimum wage is $15 a month - about 10 cents an hour.

American Samoa sought foreign manufacturers to diversify its economy, which depends mostly on tuna canning. The attraction is quota-free and duty-free exports to the United States.

Chinese-American garment maker BCTC imported about 150 workers from mainland China to American Samoa in 1995 but closed in 1998. Daewoosa opened in 1998, with 73 Vietnamese seamstresses, growing to 251 last year.

Daewoosa workers first appealed for legal help from Sudbury in February 1999, complaining that they had received no pay and were threatened with being sent back to Vietnam.

In June 1999, the U.S. Department of Labor fined Daewoosa $175,000 for failing to pay back wages. In June 2000, the Department of Labor fined Daewoosa an additional $580,000. Last August, Daewoosa attempted to repatriate 38 workers accused of fighting, lacking sewing skills, stealing, being "a bad influence" or being pregnant.

The factory was new and airy, but the Vietnamese workers complained of being confined by barbed wire to an industrial zone, housed in cramped, rat-infested dormitories and fed meatless meals of rice gruel. Violence flared Nov. 28 between Vietnamese and Samoan workers in the company cafeteria, with several workers injured and Quyen losing her eye.

"I've never encountered a situation like this," said Frank Strasheim, a veteran of 28 years with U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is scheduled to conclude an investigation of conditions at Daewoosa next month. "This is the kind of thing like you see in the movies - workers beaten, deprived of food, a curfew. It's shocking."

The seamstresses' contract with their Vietnamese recruiter, International Manpower Supply, guaranteed they would earn a minimum $408 a month plus payment for overtime work. Daewoosa would cover the cost of their meals and housing. After completing a three-year contract, they would receive return air fare from American Samoa.

But about half the workers' wages went to repay International Manpower to cover the $5,000 costs of recruiting, visa processing and transportation. If a worker failed to complete her job on time, the contract required relatives in Vietnam to repay the $5,000 plus return airfare - another $1,000 because of Samoa's remote location. Many workers complained that they had never received any money.

Grover Joseph Rees, counsel for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Human Rights, holds the Vietnamese recruitment agencies responsible for the plight of the seamstresses and said the workers might be eligible for asylum under a new U.S. law that grants harbor to victims of human trafficking.

"A government agency was actively involved in trafficking its own people into what they had to know amounted to slavery," said Rees, who visited American Samoa this month to investigate the case. "They kept sending people after they knew workers were not paid, were locked up and beaten if they tried to escape the complex."

Vietnamese officials in Washington and Hanoi did not respond to questions from The Orange County Register for this story.

On Jan. 12, a judge removed Daewoosa from its Korean owner, Lee Kil-Soo, and assigned the company to a receivership, American Samoa's version of bankruptcy protection. Lee must decide Tuesday whether to sell the company's assets or lose it.

Jim Fones, manager of American Samoa's shipyard, was put in charge of Daewoosa and closed the factory Jan. 18, because he had no money to buy materials or pay wages. A J.C. Penney attorney wrote him that the company would not accept Daewoosa clothing because it was manufactured in violation of U.S. labor laws.

Some of the seamstresses have found jobs as housekeepers. A few have been caught stealing coconuts and bananas from orchards, ruffling relations with native Samoans. Most depend on church donations for food.

"I'll make sure they get fed," Fones said in a phone interview.

American Samoa officials blame mismanagement and language barriers for Daewoosa's problems. Lee, a fisherman, had no experience as a garment maker and speaks neither English nor Vietnamese. There are no records to show whether he posted a required bond so workers could go home if the business went bad, Fones said.

Governments are at a standoff over helping the workers. Court efforts to obtain cash for Daewoosa from South Korea have gone nowhere.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington issued a statement in December asking the U.S. and American Samoan governments to protect the rights and safety of its workers in American Samoa.

Washington has not offered to return the workers to Vietnam. In mid-January, American Samoa asked the Vietnamese Embassy to pay for the workers' return.

"We haven't received a response yet," said Jerry Kappel, legal counsel to American Samoa's governor. Vietnam continues to regard American Samoa as a job destination. An employment recruiter for Tourism Co. 12, a subsidiary of Vietnam's National Administration of Tourism, scouted American Samoa in December and January, Kappel said.

A Jan. 14 report by the government-run Vietnam News Service concluded: "American Samoa is a potentially lucrative labor market, with several factories under construction that will need 3,000 overseas workers."

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 204 Manufacturing