Misery of rag-trade slaves
in America's Pacific outpost
--Slaves Used to Make Clothes for Sears and JC Penney
March 1, 2003
When Thanh Nguyen was offered
the chance to quit her poorly paid factory job in Vietnam
and work in one of America's Pacific territories, she
saw it as an easy way to a good income. Instead she found
herself in a brutal sweatshop where workers were beaten
and starved while they made designer clothes for the US
retail giants Sears and JC Penney.
Last week a court in Washington
found Thanh's Korean boss, Lee Kil-soo, guilty of human
trafficking in what the US attorney general, John Ashcroft,
described as "nothing less than modern-day slavery".
Lee, who will be sentenced
on June 9, owned the Daewoosa Samoa factory, near American
Samoa's capital, Pago Pago. It employed 251 immigrant
workers from Vietnam and China in appalling conditions.
Workers were paid $200 (¥126) a month for room and board,
for which they received a bunk in a cramped, 36-bed dormitory
and three meagre meals a day.
"We had one 2lb chicken for
all the factory," says Thanh. "They gave us some potatoes
as well. It was very bad food."
Pay was routinely withheld,
and when workers went on strike to recover their lost
earnings Daewoosa's managers switched off the electricity,
making conditions in the overheated compound unbearable.
During the worst dispute
in November 2000, Lee allegedly authorised Samoan managers
to make an example of one of the Vietnamese seamstresses.
Quyen Truong was dragged from her sewing machine by several
men, before a Samoan employee gouged out her eye with
a plastic pipe.
The clothes the workers made
were sold principally under Sears and JC Penney designer
brands and included casual and sportswear: the MV Sport
clothing produced at the plant turned out varsity sweatshirts
carrying the names of American universities; the Spalding
brand owned by Daewoosa importer Jacques Moret is a leading
producer of women's exercise clothing.
While JC Penney has agreed
to pay back wages to Daewoosa's workers, no other company
has made any redress for the conditions under which their
clothes were made.
Thanh Nguyen, 24, had been
initially optimistic about taking her seamstress's skills
to American Samoa. The plan appeared to offer vastly better
prospects than were available in Hanoi, paying $400 a
month compared to the Vietnamese average wage of $30 a
These benefits came at a
cost: before she could start, she had to pay $4,500 to
International Manpower Supply, a Vietnamese export labour
agency. Such money was not easy to get hold of, but her
parents agreed to remortgage their home to guarantee the
In fact, Thanh earned just
$672 in her nine months at the factory. The debt incurred
was so high that when the factory was closed late in 2000,
Thanh's first feeling was not relief at her escape but
fear about how she would pay it off without work.
"I was so nervous and I was
crying and crying," she said. "I didn't want to go back
to Vietnam because I didn't have the money."
Charles Kernaghan, the director
of the national labour committee in Washington, says that
American Samoa's ambiguous status makes it the perfect
location for labour exploitation.
As a US territory with an
economy in need of stimulation, its goods attract no import
tariffs in mainland US. They even earn the Made in USA
label which some shoppers take as a guarantee of good
However, its distance from
the US means regulation is slight. More than 7,000 miles
from Washington, the territory is so remote that American
labour inspectors say they cannot even afford to pay for
the journey to examine work conditions.
On top of this, it has looser
immigration laws than the mainland US and a raft of favourable
tax incentives designed to attract business to its backward
A similar status exists in
Saipan, another American territory in the Northern Mariana
islands, where thousands of garment workers have filed
class action suits against major US clothing and retail
companies over their alleged exploitation in sweatshops.
In the past 25 years huge numbers of foreign investors
from South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines have set
up shop there and in American Samoa to take advantage
of their favourable status.
The Washington-based lobby
group Vietnam Labour Watch (VLW) believes that American
Samoa's government was in cahoots with the Daewoosa factory's
owners, pointing to several close connections between
Daewoosa and the local authorities.
One of Daewoosa's directors
was the wife of American Samoa's lieutenant governor,
and the company's lawyer was the brother of the territory's
VLW alleges that American
Samoan authorities twisted local immigration laws to allow
Daewoosa workers into the territory, and to force them
out if their behaviour became troublesome.
Eni Faleomavaega, US congressman
for the territory, says American Samoa has learned its
lesson and will not be involved with similar extortion
But Charles Kernaghan is
more sceptical. "There's no way out of this without laws,"
he says. "It will never be cleaned up by corporations
monitoring themselves - it's too easy for them," he says.