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Misery of rag-trade slaves in Americas Pacific outpost: Workers in Samoan sweatshop beaten and starved

Guardian  |  March 1, 2003  |  Share  |  Source article

Click here to view Daewoosa, American Samoa campaign page.

By DAVID FICKLING 

When Thanh Nguyen was offered the chance to leave her poorly paid factory job in Vietnam and work in one of America's Pacific territories, she saw it as an easy way to a good income.

But she found herself in a brutal sweatshop where workers were beaten and starved while they made designer clothes for the US retail giants Sears and JC Penney.

Last week a court in Washington found Thanh's Korean boss, Lee Kil-soo, guilty of human trafficking.

The US attorney general, John Ashcroft, described it as "nothing less than modern-day slavery". Lee, who will be sentenced on June 9, owned the Daewoosa Samoa factory, near the American Samoa capital, Pago Pago.

It employed 251 immigrant workers from Vietnam and China in appalling conditions. They paid Dollars 200 (pounds 126) a month for room and board, for which they received a bunk in a cramped 36-bed dormitory and three meagre meals a day.

"We had one 2lb chicken for all the factory," Thanh said. "They gave us some potatoes as well. It was very bad food."

Their pay was routinely withheld, and when they went on strike to recover their lost earnings the managers switched off the electricity, making the overheated compound unbearable.

During the worst dispute, in November 2000, Lee allegedly authorised his Samoan managers to make an example of one of the Vietnamese seamstresses. Quyen Truong was dragged from her sewing machine by several men and a Samoan employee gouged out her eye with a plastic pipe.

The clothes the workers made were sold principally under Sears and JC Penney designer labels, and included casual and sportswear.

The MV Sport clothing produced at the plant included sweatshirts carrying the names of American universities; the Spalding brand owned by Jacques Moret is a leading line of women's exercise clothing.

JC Penney has agreed to pay the Daewoosa workers their back wages, but no other company has made redress for the conditions under which their clothes were made.

Thanh Nguyen, 24, was initially optimistic about taking her seamstress's skills to American Samoa, when a colleague suggested it.

It appeared to offer vastly better prospects than were available in Hanoi, paying Dollars 400 a month compared with the Vietnamese average wage of Dollars 30 a month.

But these benefits came at a cost: before she could begin she had to pay Dollars 4,500 to International Manpower Supply, a Vietnamese labour export agency. That much money was not easy to get hold of, but her parents agreed to remortgage their home to guarantee it.

In fact Thanh earned only Dollars 672 in her nine months at the factory.

The debt incurred was so high that when the factory was closed late in 2000 her first feeling was not relief at her escape but fear about how she would pay off what she owed without a job.

"I was so nervous and I was crying and crying," she said.

"I didn't want to go back to Vietnam because I didn't have the money."

Charles Kernaghan director of the National Labour Committee in Washington, says that American Samoa's ambiguous status makes it the perfect location for labour exploitation.

As a US territory with an economy in need of stimulation, its goods attract no import tariffs in mainland US. They even earn the Made in USA label, which some shoppers take as a guarantee of good labour practice.

But its distance from the mainland ensures that it is only lightly regulated.

More than 7,000 miles from Washington, and six hours behind eastern seaboard time, it is so remote that American labour inspectors say they cannot even afford the journey to examine work conditions.

On top of this, it has looser immigration laws than the mainland US and a number of favourable tax incentives designed to attract business to its backward economy.

Similar conditions prevail in Saipan, another US territory in the Northern Mariana islands, where thousands of garment workers have brought a class-action case against leading US clothing and retail companies for alleged exploitation in sweatshops.

In the past 25 years huge numbers of foreign investors from South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines have set up shop there and in American Samoa to take advantage of their favourable status.

The Washington lobbyist Vietnam Labour Watch (VLW) believes that the government of American Samoa's was in cahoots with the Daewoosa factory's owners, pointing to several close connections between Daewoosa and the local authorities.

One of Daewoosa's directors was the wife of the territory's lieutenant governor, and the company's lawyer was the brother of the governor.

VLW alleges that the American Samoan authorities twisted the local immigration laws to allow Daewoosa workers into the territory, and to force them out if their behaviour became troublesome.

Eni Faleomavaega, the US congressman for the territory, says American Samoa has learned its lesson and will not be involved with similar extortion again.

But Charles Kernaghan is more sceptical.
 
"There's no way out of this without laws," he says. "It will never be cleaned up by corporations monitoring themselves - it's too easy for them."

 

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