Cambodian Workers’ Lawsuit to Proceed in US

A U.S. court has accepted jurisdiction over a human trafficking case filed by seven Cambodians against a group of Thai and U.S. companies that supply seafood to retail giant Walmart and others, clearing the way for a trial.

The plaintiffs had migrated to Thailand in 2010 for work and spent months and years working in various seafood factories under what they described as near slave-like conditions—overworked, underpaid and refused permission to return home.

The companies—Rubicon Resources and Wales & Co. Universe of the U.S. and Phatthana Seafood and S.S. Frozen Food of Thailand—filed a motion with the California Central District Court in August, arguing for the case to be thrown out because it was a labor dispute and not subject to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

U.S. Judge John Walter rejected the defendants’ argument last week, allowing the civil case to proceed.

“When they finally returned home, these men and women had nothing to show for their hard labor and their families were poorer than before,” their lawyer, Agnieszka Fryszman, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said in a statement.

“Fortunately, in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Congress gave trafficked workers the tools they need to obtain justice when companies knowingly profit from forced labor in their supply chains,” she wrote. “We are pleased that these claims can go forward in a U.S. court and we look forward to proving our case at trial.”

According to the original complaint, the Cambodians had gone into debt to pay high recruitment fees, were forced to work overtime while paid less than promised and, in at least one case, were reduced to scavenging for fish to eat along the shore. Some also had their passports taken away, effectively trapping them in the country.

Keo Ratha, one of the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday that he had been promised 10,000 baht, or about $282, a month by the recruitment agency that sent him to Thailand.

“But I didn’t get what the recruitment agency promised me in terms of better wages. Actually, I was forced to do extra work at the seafood factory and got paid very little,” he said. “They said it would be eight hours of work, but I was forced to do overtime, usually 10 or 12 hours, and I still got only 3,000 baht or 4,000 baht including overtime.”

Mr. Ratha, who now works as a carpenter in Svay Rieng province, said he got his passport back from the factory only after complaining to a local NGO, and left after three months.

He said he was thrilled to hear that the U.S. court had rejected the companies’ bid to dismiss the case.

“I’m so happy that my complaint will proceed to trial soon,” Mr. Ratha said. “I filed the complaint with the U.S. court against the seafood companies not only for myself. It’s for justice and to help other migrant workers too, because I don’t want to see other Cambodian migrant workers be the next victims of labor abuse by big companies.”

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