WASHINGTON DC —
A U.S. federal court has ordered four seafood companies, including two American importers, to respond to a complaint made by seven Cambodian laborers allegedly exploited while working in Thailand’s seafood industry.
Failing to comply with the order would result in a judgement favoring the plaintiffs, Judge John F. Walter warned in a standing order issued in late June.
A law firm representing the five male and two female plaintiffs on June 15 filed a complaint against U.S. companies Rubicon Resources and Wales & Co. Universe, and Thai seafood companies Phatthana Seafood Co. Ltd. and S.S. Frozen Food Co. Ltd.
The seven Cambodians, were recruited from their rural villages by a local recruiting agency to work for Phatthana Seafood Co. Ltd between 2010 and 2012 and became victims of “human trafficking, forced labor, involuntary servitude, and peonage,” according to lawyers at the firm Cohen Milstein, which specializes in human rights and class action cases and is representing the Cambodian workers.
As of late July, the two U.S. companies had not responded to the complaint, despite a deadline passing last week.
When contacted by VOA Khmer, a woman who picked up the phone at California-based Rubicon Resources said the company had “no comment on that.” The woman declined to give her name and refused even to confirm whether the company was aware of the complaint.
According to court documents published online, a summons was served to Rubicon Resources on June 28. The firm’s chief finance officer, Harry Kraushaar, is recorded as having received the document.
Cambodian workers collect fish which will be made into a traditional pickled fish, locally known as Prahok, at the river bank of the Tonle Sap in Chrang Chamreh during the fish harvesting season, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Rubicon Resources, based out of Culver City, was created by a group of seafood companies for the purpose of marketing and distributing seafood products in the U.S. According to Bloomberg, it sells a variety of products including fish, shrimps, egg rolls, and red curry.
Wales & Co. Universe Ltd. is incorporated in Thailand, but is registered to conduct business in California. It sells frozen seafood, Asian food and Sushi. A summons was received by Sean Caraway on June 28, the court papers show.
The summons and the complaint were also translated into Thai and delivered to the two Thai companies. S.S. Frozen Food Co., Ltd. was served on July 12, with a K Warin signing off on the delivery list. The company is based in southern Thailand’s Songkla province. Phatthana Seafood was served on July 11.
VOA Khmer’s efforts to contact the two Thai companies by email and phone were unsuccessful.
“If you fail to respond, judgment by default will be entered against you for the relief demanded in the complaint,” wrote court clerk Kiry Gray in a summons dated June 24.
The two Thai companies have until early August to respond.
Keo Ratha, one of the plaintiffs, spent three months working for Phatthana Seafood in Songkla from late 2011 to early 2012.
Cambodian trafficked fishermen return from Indonesia after being freed or escaping from slave-like conditions on Thai fishing vessels, talks to journalists at the Phnom Penh International airport on December 12, 2011.
“The way they mistreated us was beyond words,” Keo Ratha told VOA Khmer in an interview. “We encountered this at places where we slept and ate. And our spending was not balanced with our income. These are the problems.”
The workers’ shelters would flood during rains, he said, adding that workers would sometimes be kept up all night draining the water from their quarters, before working long hours the next day.
The company promised to pay between $300 and $500 per month, but Keo Ratha said he got just over $100 a month, much of which he had to spend on food and accommodation.
Four years after returning home, Keo Ratha said, he still owes more than $1,000 on loans he took out to travel to Thailand for the job.
Shocking levels of exploitation in Thailand’s seafood industry has been exposed by journalists and human rights advocates in recent years. The industry benefits from the copious supply of cheap labor that comes to Thailand mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar. Thai government officials and police officers have been implicated in human trafficking, according to reports by the U.S. government, human rights organizations and media.
Agnieszka Fryszman, a partner at Cohen Milstein, told VOA Khmer that the defendants were aware of the abuses that went on in their factories or supply chains.
“For one, the company on site knew because the men [and women] complained and wanted to go home,” she said.
A Cambodian flag on a fishing boat flutters in wind as the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand near Cambodia's port town of Sihanoukville.
“Two, there were so many reports and investigations over time by United States’ State Department, by Human Rights Watch, where we have 15 pages of evidence of all these investigation that highlighting the problem in this industry.”
“One of the things that we think we will be able to prove is that the U.S. companies in the U.S. should have known that people are being trafficked,” Fryszman added.
In the complaint, the victims demand damages due to loss of work opportunities, assets and education.
“The plaintiffs desperately need the money and desperately need a recovery,” said Fryszman.
“And it’s important to set up precedent quickly for all the other people that are still in terrible conditions and are still working at these shrimp sheds.”
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said there had been little improvement in working conditions for Cambodian laborers in Thailand.
“There are still a lot of problems related to exploitation of their wages and overtime work forced against their will,” said Moeun Tola.
“And recruitment agencies from Cambodia do not take responsibility for their accommodation and food while they wait for placement.”
For Cambodian workers, seeking justice at home is impossible. Instead, with the help of advocates in America, they are going after the companies selling the products of their labor in the United States.
“What I really want is that the company that buys the products should look at every aspects of their suppliers, because it was not only me who was exploited, there are a lot of fishermen at sea who are suffering more exploitation than those on land,” said Keo Ratha.
“There should be restrictions on that so that abuses on people both on land and at sea can be stopped.”