The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Captive Workforce

by Michelle Chen

One among countless examples of “modern day slavery,” the harrowing ordeal survived by hundreds of workers at a factory has lasting effects.

This sidebar is associated with a full-length feature article, Slavery Slips Through Cracks in U.S. Policy.

The end of the day was always the hardest part for the workers.

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Around nine o’clock, the guards would shut the gates of the factory compound, preventing employees from escaping. But the fences were only an extra precaution; starvation, threats and beatings had sapped many of even the hope of ever leaving.

The end of the day did not bring relief from the exhausting work, recalled "Kim," a former employee who did not want her identity revealed. Packed into cramped dormitories, they slept in pairs, if at all. Some nights, she said, their boss "went inside of our room and lied on the bed," and watched themas they undressed or showered.

Kim, who was initially hired as an interpreter for the Korean factory managers, recounted in an interview: "He didn’t give us anything. … We had worked almost two months, but he didn’t pay us."

This was how more than 250 men and women lived from 1999 to 2001 at the Daewoosa clothing plant in American Samoa, run by Korean businessman Kil Soo Lee. The workers, "imported" from China and Vietnam, had traveled to the island territory expecting to ascend into the booming global manufacturing workforce. They instead plummeted into an underground slave labor economy.

During their enslavement, workers produced clothes for major American name brands under slave labor conditions, subject to the withholding of wages, brutal violence at the hands of factory security guards and food deprivation -- mistreatment that was consistently ignored by local government authorities.

Last month, Lee was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for labor violations, extortion and other counts, capping one of the biggest forced labor operations in US history.

But for about 200 former employees, who have fanned throughout the United States since the closure of the factory in 2001, the legal redress brings only partial closure.

Kim was one of a group of more than twenty Daewoosa workers routed to Mosaic Family Services in Dallas, Texas, where they received federally funded social services, including counseling, legal assistance, and help finding employment and reuniting with their families. Kim has managed to find work at an electronics factory and hopes to attend college in the US.

"I feel very safe in the United States," said Kim. "But sometime, when I have to talk with somebody about the American Samoa story, you know, I can [start to] cry."

Still, the lingering emotional trauma has not kept Kim from talking. "I don’t want the other people [to] have that bad condition … like ours in American Samoa," she reflected. She mustered the will to testify against her enslaver in federal court, she said, with the hope of spurring action against forced labor: "The Vietnamese government and the US … they have to do something."

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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