Seven Workers Subjected to Forced Labor and Involuntary Servitude, Violating the United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act
CALIFORNIA – A California federal court judge ruled today that a human trafficking lawsuit against four companies, all of which supply seafood to retail giant Walmart, can proceed. The civil lawsuit, first filed in June, was brought on behalf of seven plaintiffs who were recruited from their home villages in rural Cambodia to work at factories in Thailand producing shrimp and seafood for export to the United States. Instead of the good jobs at good wages they were promised, the five men and two women allegedly became victims of human trafficking, forced labor, involuntary servitude and peonage. The defendants had filed a motion in August asking Judge John F. Walter to dismiss the suit; that motion was denied this afternoon.
The defendants sell their shrimp and seafood to large U.S. customers like Walmart and include California-based Rubicon Resources, LLC, and an affiliate, Wales & Co. Universe Ltd, as well as Thai corporations Phatthana Seafood and S.S. Frozen Food. The complaint states that the defendants were part of a joint venture that knowingly profited from trafficked labor in direct violation of both U.S. and international law.
“When they finally returned home, these men and women had nothing to show for their hard labor and their families were poorer than before,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC, which is representing the victims pro-bono. “Fortunately, in the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, Congress gave trafficked workers the tools they need to obtain justice when companies knowingly profit from forced labor in their supply chains. We are pleased that these claims can go forward in a U.S. court and we look forward to proving our case at trial.”
“What happened to me was wrong,” said plaintiff Keo Ratha. “I filed this suit so companies would think twice before exploiting trafficked workers in the future and to help the workers who were exploited with me.”
The United State Government Trafficking in Persons Report, human rights organizations and international organizations have long highlighted the problems of trafficking and forced labor at the Thai shrimp and seafood factories that are part of the multi-billion dollar seafood supply chain.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act authorizes victims of human trafficking to pursue a remedy against whoever knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value, from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged in an act of trafficking or forced labor.
In the case of the Cambodian villagers, each paid high recruitment fees to obtain jobs in Thailand. Several mortgaged family farmland and went deep into debt to finance the fees and travel costs, expenses they planned to repay with the promised wages. But when they arrived at the Thai factory, the villagers learned that they would be paid less than promised and that their already meager wages would be further reduced by unexpected salary deductions for housing, fees, and other charges.
Furthermore, the men and women worked long hours in harsh conditions and were packed into crowded housing with inadequate sanitation facilities. When the villagers sought to leave the factory and return home, they were not permitted to do so. Instead, their passports were withheld and they were ordered to pay off the “fees they had incurred”—a condition made difficult, if not impossible, by the reduced pay and unexpected deductions. For example, one plaintiff, Phan Sophea, stated he was unable to return home for his mother’s funeral because he could not afford to ransom his passport back.
Some of the workers did not make enough money to afford food, even when working more than eight hours a day six days a week. For example, villager Yem Ban stated he was reduced to scavenging for fish along the beach and vegetables left in the fields after harvest.
When they were allowed to return home, the villagers had nothing to show for their hard labor or, worse, lost the farmland they had used as collateral to pay the job recruiters, driving their families deeper into poverty. One villager, Phan Sophea, who lost his farmland, states that he and his family now often go hungry. Another, Sem Kosal, said he now is unable to pay school fees for his son and could not afford to buy medicine when his children were ill.
“Through this lawsuit, we hold accountable companies that allow human trafficking in their supply chain,” said Mary Ross of Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP.
A leader in international human rights litigation, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll’s Human Rights Practice Group has been at the forefront of human trafficking cases in the U.S. Agnieszka Fryszman and Alysson Ouoba of Cohen Milstein are joined by co-counsel Dan Stormer and Mary Tanagho Ross of Hadsell Stormer & Renick, Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman and Anthony Dicaprio.
About Cohen Milstein:
Founded in 1969, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is recognized as one of the premier firms in the country handling major, complex plaintiff-side litigation. With over 90 attorneys, Cohen Milstein has offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill., New York, N.Y., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Philadelphia, Pa., and Raleigh, N.C. For additional information, visit https://www.cohenmilstein.com or call (202) 408-4600.