Cambodians who were forced to work in slave-like conditions in Thai seafood industry have filed a complaint to a US federal court against two US companies and their Thailand-based suppliers.
The complainants, two women and five men, were recruited by Phatthana Seafood Co Ltd between 2010 and 2012 and faced “forced labor, involuntary servitude, and peonage” at the hands of their employer, according to their lawyers, who filed the case with the federal court in California’s Central District on June 15.
“They were working long hours and because of all the deduction to their pays for the tools and the housing, and the van, they ended up not having enough money to eat,” Agnieszka Fryszman, an attorney with the Cohen Millstein law firm, told VOA Khmer.
“The conditions were bad,” she added. “And I think the extra tragedy is the people are worse off than when they returned home. After having worked so hard for a year or more they didn’t make any money and were further in debt when they returned home.”
Fryszman added that because they could not afford to buy food some of the workers resorted to eating dead fish that washed up near their shacks, which were overcrowded and flooded when it rained.
As well as Phatthana Seafood, the case also targets Thai firm S.S. Frozen Food and California-based Rubicon Resources and Wales & Co Universe Ltd.
Keo Ratha, one of the complainants, was recruited from Cambodia’s Pursat province by recruitment agency CDM Manpower. Convinced he would earn a higher income in Thailand, he sold his motorbike to pay for a passport and incurred debts to pay the recruitment fees, agreeing to pay it off out of his future earnings.
He arrived in Thailand in October 2011. Chemicals used on the job, including chlorine, caused him to suffer ill health, he says. He was never paid the $250 per month he was promised, receiving only $135 before deductions for rent and other things
Ratha’s ordeal ended in January 2012 when media reports began to emerge of his plight.
“What happened to me was wrong,” Ratha said, in a statement released by his attorney. “I filed this suit so companies would think twice before exploiting trafficked workers in the future and to help the workers who were exploited with me.”
Sem Kosal and Sophea Bun were living in Battambang when CDM Manpower recruited them to work for Patthana. They left Cambodia in December 2010 and returned in July 2012. Despite working hard they barely had any money left, the complaint said.
They could not afford medicine when their children fell ill and without their grandparents the children would starve.
“They made so little,” said the complaint, “they often did not have enough money to buy sufficient food and went hungry.”
Yem Ban and his wife Nol Nakry from Kampot province were recruited to work in Thailand in 2011 and were deported in 2012.
With hard working conditions and insufficient food to eat they had to look for food, including unharvested food in the fields or fish washed up on the shore. They decided to report themselves to the Thai police as undocumented workers because the company refused to give them their documents.
Phan Sophea from Battambang was recruited to work in 2010 and returned in October 2012. Sophea took out a loan to finance the costs.
When he was in Thailand his mother died, but he was not allowed to attend the funeral unless he could deposit almost $200 to get his passport back. He returned home in debt and poor health from handling chlorine without effective protective gear.
The final victim in the complaint, Sok Sang from Kampot, was recruited to work for Patthana in May 2011 and returned in April 2012.
“I have an enormous amount of respect for the plaintiffs in this suit,” said Fryszman. “They are wonderful dignified people. They are so hard working. They are lovely, decent people who didn’t deserve what happened to them and I’m impressed with their courage for being willing to step up for themselves and for all other fellow citizens.”
The US companies in the case sell their shrimps and other seafood to large US chains including Walmart.