March 15, 2018

Zhou Qingjiang was toiling in a factory in China’s rust belt when he decided to pack his bags for America. A recruiter guaranteed a job that paid $3,000 a month — more than triple the average wage in China — as long as Zhou forked over thousands of dollars for his help. The offer was too good to pass up.

Ten days later, Zhou found himself on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan, a U.S. Commonwealth, working 14-hour days with few breaks on a casino construction site. He bunked with eight men in dilapidated housing and took home less than half the promised wages. This was not the American dream he pictured.

“All those agents tricked us,” said Zhou, 46. “When I arrived and saw hundreds of other Chinese workers, I realized we were all here illegally.”

U.S. officials have been investigating and announced settlements last week with four Chinese construction firms to pay $14 million in back wages and damages to 2,400 affected workers. The companies, contracted by Hong Kong’s Imperial Pacific International, brought workers on tourist visas, paid them less than required by law and failed to secure proper work authorization by exploiting a visa waiver program that allows Chinese citizens to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands.

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Construction is the second most common industry for forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization in Geneva. The group estimates nearly 25 million people were victims of forced labor in 2016, with roughly 60 percent working in private sectors.

“This is a pretty classic trafficking and forced labor scenario,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, partner and chair of the human rights practice at law firm Cohen Milstein in Washington, D.C. “You have people with these debts. They’re in the middle of the ocean. The isolation of the location is ripe for exploitation.”

But even with help from the authorities, “can you ever enforce the judgment, and how would you do that?” Fryszman said. “You’d have to get their assets here.”

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