GALVESTON — A lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court seeks more than $200 million in damages from companies accused of the human trafficking of Vietnamese laborers to the United States to unknowingly work as indentured servants.
Attorneys Anthony Buzbee and Tammy Tran filed the lawsuit in Galveston federal court to “expose an international human trafficking conspiracy,” the lawsuit claims.
Nine of the 12 men named as plaintiffs live in Galveston County. The others, including 43 unnamed men, reside in Louisiana and Texas.
The lawsuit accuses Hanoi, Vietnam, companies International Investment Trade and Service Group, known as Interserco, and General Automotive Industry Corp. of Vietnam, known as Vinamotors, of engaging in a human trafficking ring with U.S. “co-conspirators,” Coast to Coast Resources and ILP Agency.
Coast to Coast and ILP were sued in March 2009 in Harris County district court after two years of litigation, and an agreed judgment of $60 million was entered, the lawsuit claims.
Workers Sought Welding Jobs
The workers were lured in 2008 by Vietnamese television advertisements, promising $15 per hour welding jobs around the Houston Ship Channel, according to the lawsuit.
“These men were transported nearly 10,000 miles from their homeland and essentially made to work in indentured servitude,” Buzbee said in a statement.
In exchange for 30 months of employment, the workers paid a fee from $7,000 to $15,000, the lawsuit claims.
To afford the venture, the workers provided the defendants a deed of trust to their homes, the lawsuit claims. The workers received receipts, and the director of Vinamotors took pictures with some workers before their departure, the lawsuit states.
Vietnam exports each year 85,000 workers in the construction, fishing and manufacturing industry, generating revenues that exceed $2 billion annually, the lawsuit states.
The defendants are in that business, and both companies are owned, in part, by the Vietnamese government, the lawsuit states.
Living Conditions ‘Deplorable’
Once arriving in the United States, the workers were housed four to a two-bedroom in “rundown, dilapidated” apartments in Pasadena. The uneducated workers were housed like animals in deplorable conditions and treated like indentured servants, the lawsuit claims.
The workers claim their days were filled with hard work and dreary, isolated living.
A driver, who didn’t speak Vietnamese, took them to work and to the grocery store. They had little contact with anyone else and were threatened with arrest or violence if they spoke with outsiders, the lawsuit claims.
The week of Feb. 23, 2009, the workers were eight months on the job when they were fired. The workers were told to pack their belongings for a return flight to Vietnam. The workers weren’t able to recoup their down payments and expenses or make money for their families.
The defendants also replaced the workers with “a new set of hopeful, unsuspecting laborers,” the lawsuit claims.
Buzbee seeks $100 million each in punitive and exemplary damages and other fees on allegations the plaintiffs violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Alien Torts Claims Act and other federal and state laws.
Buzbee Urges Criminal Probe
Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, when reached Wednesday afternoon by phone, had no immediate comment on whether there was a criminal investigation into the allegations.
Special Agent Shauna A. Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the Houston office of the FBI, said the agency couldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit and that the agency’s policy is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.
“We hope they look into the matter, but I’ve found that private litigation rights more wrongs than the criminal justice (system) can ever address,” Buzbee told The Daily News via email.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese workers seek to stay in the United States and are working on their visa issues with assistance from the South Texas College of Law, Buzbee said.
“We have been able to get them housing and foodstuffs from the generosity of donors,” Buzbee said. “This case makes the Vietnamese government nervous, and it should.”
Galveston Daily News
April 14, 2011