In 1999, Vi was one of about 250 workers brought from Vietnam on a labor contract. A South Korean businessman named Kil Soo Lee had bought a garment factory near Pago Pago, in American Samoa, and required sewing machine operators. Vi was recruited by a Vietnamese government-owned enterprise called Tourism Company 12, and told she was heading for the US. Like the other recruits, she paid $5000 to cover the cost of airfare and work permits, and signed a three-year contract in exchange for monthly paychecks of around $400, plus free meals and housing, and return air fare. But upon arrival in American Samoa, the recruits were forced to work to pay off smuggling fees. Lee confiscated their passports to prevent them from escaping, and quickly stopped paying them altogether, though kept charging them for room and board. He withheld food, ordered beatings, and forced them to work 14-18 hour days. Female employees were sexually assaulted, and those who became pregnant were forced to have abortions or return to Vietnam.
Vi’s story of slavery is also one of prosecution. In 2000, two workers at Lee’s factory sought legal help from attorneys. On behalf of more than 250 factory workers, the attorneys filed a pro-bono class-action lawsuit against Daewoosa and the Vietnamese government. The case was publicized by human rights groups, and the two workers who asked for legal help disappeared. Their bodies were never found. Then, in November 2000, a group of workers refused to return to their sewing machines, and a fight ensued between workers and factory guards. During the incident, one woman lost an eye and two other workers were hospitalized. This gained the attention of local law enforcement and the FBI Field Office in Honolulu began investigating Daewoosa in February 2001. Enforcing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), federal agents closed down the factory and arrested Lee on charges of involuntary servitude and forced labor. He was deported to Hawaii in March 2001.
Though the recruiting companies and the Vietnamese government refused to pay for the workers’ flights home, they left American Samoa. Some returned to Vietnam and more than 200, including Vi, were flown to the US and admitted as potential witnesses for the prosecution at Lee’s trial. In April 2002, the High Court of American Samoa ordered the factory and two Vietnamese government-owned labor agencies to pay $3.5 million to the workers. Lee claimed bankruptcy. In February 2003, he was found guilty of involuntary servitude, extortion, money laundering and bribery, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The court also ordered him to pay $1.8 million in restitution to the workers. Vi, and the other Vietnamese workers who came to the US, applied for “T” visas, issued to victims of trafficking as a result of the TVPA.
My name is Vi. And I am 28 years old. I arrived in American Samoa on July 22, 1999. Two other groups of Vietnamese workers had been brought to this island before us. When I signed the contract to Tour Company 12, they told me that I would go to the US and its Deputy Director promised that I would get paid $408 a month. I had to borrow $4000 to pay to Company 12 and another $2000 to pay the company official in charge of recruitment.
We were taken to American Samoa and not the US. As soon as we landed our passports were confiscated. At a Daewoosa shop, I had to work from 7am to 2am and sometimes to 7am the next day, and also on Saturdays and Sundays, without pay. We had no money to buy food, amenities or soap. We had to pay $200 per month for room and board, which they should have provided according to the contract.
Meals at Daewoosa consisted of a few cabbage leaves, and potatoes cooked with a lot of water. Those who were at the head of the line could get some cabbage and potato, latecomers got only water. Hungry, we planted some vegetables to supplement our meals, but Mr. Lee, President of Daewoosa, destroyed our garden. Undernourished, I lost 35 pounds within one year and weighed only 78 pounds.
Working and living conditions at Daewoosa were very suffocating. There was no air ventilation. Workers slept right next to each other. The temperature in the rooms sometime went up to over 100 degrees. We were not allowed to step out for fresh air. The supervisor even kept count of how many times we went to the toilet.
We lived 36 people in one room. Another worker and I shared one tiny bed. We could only sleep on our side. If we lay on our back, we would pile on top of each other.
Most of us were women. At night Mr. Lee often came into our room and lay next to whoever he liked. Once he forced me to give him a massage right in our bedroom.
He called pretty ones into his office and forced them to have sex with him. Three women have publicly denounced him for that. Once, several of his customers arrived in American Samoa. Mr. Lee pressed several female workers to sleep with them. They resisted. At the workplace, he regularly groped and kissed female workers in front of everyone.
There were three pregnant women among us. Mr. Lee demanded that they abortions. He fired them when they refused. Evicted from Daewoosa, they had to seek refuge at a local church.
Movement at Daewoosa was very restricted. Everyone leaving the compound was searched by American Samoan guards. Female workers were groped all over their bodies. Those who protested were strip-searched. Those coming back from the compound after 9 pm were beaten up. I was once slapped.
Mr. Lee used big American Samoan guards to terrorize us. Once, several workers staged a strike because they were not paid. He threatened that he would send these guards to short-circuit electric cables and cause a fire to kill us all. Everyone was fearful because two female workers, Nga and Dung, involved in the lawsuits against Mr. Lee had just disappeared.
On November 28 of last year, there was a dispute between the supervisor and a female worker. Mr. Lee ordered the supervisor: “If you beat her to death, I will take the blame.” The supervisor dragged the female worker out by the chest. Other workers came to her rescue. The American Samoan guards, already holding sticks and scissors, jumped in. Everyone was so frightened. We ran for our lives. Mr. Lee ran after to beat the fleeing workers. We were terrorized for days after that.
The guards paid special attention to the five or six workers known to have supported the lawsuit against Mr. Lee. They beat them the hardest. Ms. Quyen, the key witness in this lawsuit, was held by her arms on two sides by two guards. A third guard thrust a pointed stick into her eyes. As a result, she lost sight in that eye. A guard beat a male worker with a stick, breaking his front teeth and bleeding his mouth.
Another male worker was pinned down to the floor and repeatedly beaten at his temple. His blood was spilling all over the floor. The next day, an FBI agent took pictures of the bloodstains. During the assault, Daewoosa’s lawyer and the police were there but did nothing. Only when the lawyer representing the workers showed up did the guards stop the beating.
From 1999 to the above incident, Tour Company 12 and the international manpower supply, another Vietnamese company hiring workers for Daewoosa, forced us to continue working without pay and threatened to send us back to Vietnam if we disobeyed. Everyone was deeply in debt. If we got sent back, how could we pay our debt?
Since my arrival in the US, I have sent every dollar earned back to Vietnam to pay my debt. However, this has barely made a dent because the interest rate is so high, 50 percent. My parents in Vietnam are very worried. Their hair has turned all gray. They told me that it is fortunate that I have come to the US; otherwise, we would be in a hopeless situation.
If sent back, it would be hard for me to find employment. My previous workplace will not take me back. Because of my involvement in the prosecution of Mr. Lee, I am afraid of running into trouble with the government if repatriated to Vietnam.
I am getting used to life in the US. Here I am free to choose where I want to work. If dissatisfied with one workplace, I can always go to another one. I have been thoroughly helped in my first step toward a normal life, and I find everyone to be very kind. I now live with a Vietnamese family without having to pay rent. That family offers me employment. They take care of my food, transportation and other things. They also give me a phone card to call my family in Vietnam once a week. Staying with me are six female workers from American Samoa. Two of them are here today.
I have received a certification letter from the Department of Health and Human Services for public benefits. I have a temporary visa which will expire on October 30, 2002, and a work permit. I work at a nail salon in DC to pay my debts. If allowed to remain in the US, I would like to go back to school because in Vietnam I had to stop schooling at seventh grade. I also wish to be reunited with my child left behind in Vietnam. I am thankful to everyone who has helped me get out of American Samoa and everyone who has assisted me in this new life in the US.
Narrative as told to the US House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations, session on Implementation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, November 28, 2001, in Washington DC, USA.