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Were they ‘indentured servants’?

Cheated by U.S. firms, Vietnamese allege homeland exploited them
Only weeks after a Harris County judge awarded an unprecedented $60 million in civil judgments to Vietnamese welders allegedly exploited by U.S. labor supply companies, the same workers claimed in federal court Wednesday to be victims of a larger international human trafficking conspiracy.

The lawsuit identifies the culprits as two major Vietnamese companies, both partly owned by the Vietnamese government: International Investment Trade and Service group, aka Interserco, and General Automotive Industry Corp. of Vietnam, aka Vinamotors.

The workers’ attorney, Tony Buzbee, describes the Vietnam government-related companies as knowing participants in mass exportation of laborers through deceptive recruiting efforts that exploit workers by stripping them of their savings and shipping them off to U.S. companies eager to benefit from “what amounts to indentured servants.” The federal lawsuit seeks another $100 million in punitive damages.

An employee at the Vietnamese Consulate in Houston had no response to the allegations and referred callers to Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. An embassy spokesman did not return phone calls Wednesday.

In interviews and lawsuits, about 50 workers from major cities across Vietnam claim they were recruited to come to a Houston shipyard through a deceptive national TV ad campaign sponsored by the Vietnamese companies.

In 2008, interested workers paid up-front processing fees as high as $15,000— raised by mortgaging homes, selling businesses and borrowing relatives’ life savings. In exchange, they were promised about $100,000 in wages over the life of a 30-month contract.

Once here, workers were “housed like animals,” “treated like indentured servants” and fired after only eight months as the same agencies planned to replace them with new fee-paying arrivals, according to interviews and the federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Galveston.

“This is the super power country and we could not believe we had ended up like this, the company was cheating us,” Chin Ba Ngo, one of the workers told the Chronicle through a translator. Conditions here were worse than anywhere else he’d worked abroad, including Russia, South Korea and Libya. “It was like imprisonment.”

85,000 workers a year

Vietnam annually exports as many as 85,000 workers, who generate revenues of around $2 billion, the lawsuit and government reports say. The initiative is promoted by the Vietnamese as boosting the domestic economy and reducing unemployment.

Ngo, an experienced welder in his 50s, remembers seeing TV ads offering U.S. jobs. He quickly responded, paid fees and found himself on a plane to Texas. Here, he joined about three dozen others, mostly younger men from cities across Vietnam.

Instead of clean and safe accommodations, Ngo shared a rat- and cockroach-infested apartment in Pasadena with exposed wiring and filthy carpet for which he and three others got charged $2,000 monthly. Handlers deducted rent from the men’s paychecks along with a monthly transportation fee of $1,200, though workers got rides only to work and, once a week, to a supermarket.

Services were provided by two U.S.-based companies who were ordered to pay the workers $60 million: ILP Agency LLC, of Louisiana and Coast to Coast Resources Management Services, formerly based in Houston. An attorney for Coast to Coast said the company is out of business. The Chronicle was unable to reach anyone from ILP Agency.

Eight months into their contract, Ngo and other Vietnamese workers were told they were being fired and ordered to pack their things.

Living like paupers

On paper, the former shipyard workers who successfully sued their handlers in a related Harris County civil suit are now millionaires, but they have collected nothing from court judgments signed in January and February by Harris County Civil District Judge Steven Kirkland.

Instead, the workers live like paupers, fearing deportation and retribution from the Vietnamese government.

“It’s my belief is that the real culprits (and) the lion’s share of the money is being made by the entities in the home countries,” attorney Buzbee said in an interview.

Those claims are echoed in reports issued by the U.S. Department of State, which has long criticized the Vietnamese government for failing to protect its citizens from trafficking, including illegal and excessive recruitment fees charged by “Vietnamese labor export companies, most of which are state-affiliated.” Those fees are “some of the highest” paid by all “Asian expatriate workers, making them highly vulnerable to debt bondage and forced labor,” the State Department’s 2010 Report on Trafficking On Persons says.

No company has ever been prosecuted by the Vietnamese for labor trafficking crimes, the report says.

Kept in isolation

Houston has a huge and politically powerful Vietnamese immigrant community, but the shipyard workers say they were kept in isolation and warned that as citizens of a communist country they’d be treated poorly or even violently by Americans, according to the lawsuits and interviews.

It was only through the intervention of Jehovah’s Witness missionaries who visited their Pasadena apartments that the men found help after being fired.

Houston Attorney Tammy Tran, a Vietnamese-American, recruited volunteer lawyers from several Houston law firms, including Buzbee, Mark Lanier and Gordon Quan.

A group of students at the South Texas College of Law, led by attorney Naomi Bang, also are helping the men apply for visas as human trafficking or crime victims. “I would like the world to hear about this case,” Tran said. “It’s an honor to help these men and we hope that through this case we can help a lot of other young men and young women who are human trafficking victims.”

 

Lise Olsen
Houston Chronicle
April 14, 2011
Houston, Texas