PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – An attorney for seven Cambodian villagers forced to work in the Thai seafood industry told a Ninth Circuit panel Friday that all partners in the venture knew or should have known about the practice and therefore violated federal laws against human trafficking.
The rural villagers, including lead plaintiffs Keo Ratha and Sophea Bun, said in their 2016 federal lawsuit that four U.S. and Thai companies forced them to work under conditions that violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA.
The workers say they had their passports seized by bosses and were paid substandard wages for grueling work aboard fishing boats and seafood factories, processing shrimp and other goods for U.S buyers, including retail giant Walmart.
Plaintiff Sok Sang claims a female Cambodian worker was beaten into unconsciousness for wearing headphones at work.
Attempted escapes failed and pleas for help to authorizes went unanswered, the plaintiffs say, adding that Thai companies Phatthana Seafood and S.S. Frozen Food orchestrated a “debt bondage” scheme.
The Thai companies and their U.S. partners Rubicon Resources and Wales & Co. Universe moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that since the alleged actions took place overseas U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over the matter. U.S. District Judge John F. Walter agreed and granted summary judgment to the defendants in 2018.
On appeal, the workers’ attorney Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone & Hoffman told a Ninth Circuit panel Friday that Walter’s reading of the TVPA undercut the antitrafficking purpose Congress intended when passing it.
“The venture, at least in part, depended on the exploitation of workers,” Hoffman told the panel, adding the mens rea standard for establishing defendants’ civil liability is that they “knew or should have known” about labor violations taking place.
Hoffman said in opening briefs that summary judgment was inappropriate because the question of how much the companies knew, and the amount of potential damages awarded to the workers, should have been left to a jury.
U.S. Circuit Judge Bridget Bade, a Donald Trump appointee, asked Hoffman to identify the TVPA statute that allows for “extraterritorial jurisdiction” in which governments exercise authority outside their borders.
Hoffman told Bade that TVPA is “extraterritorial anyway” and that it allows for determining where the “benefit” for ventures involved in forced labor took place.
Bade cautioned against a broad application of TVPA, saying enforcement could impact small-time collaborators of a criminal venture.
“What if someone did accounting work for Phatthana or delivered paper for them? Are they engaging in human tracking?” Bade asked Hoffman. “How far do we go?”
Rubicon and Phatthana knew about worker conditions and failed to act on violation notices by the U.S Labor Department and international labor rights groups, Hoffman noted.
“Even if the TVPA statute is narrowly defined, the Rubicon and Phatthana relationship fits the participation definition,” Hoffman said.
Bryan Daly of Sheppard Mullin, an attorney for the seafood companies, said in court papers that Thai and Cambodian officials cleared the companies of human trafficking charges.
Expanding TVPA into this lawsuit is inappropriate because the matter arises out of a wage dispute between foreign parties, Daly said his reply brief, citing the U.S Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in RJR Nabisco, Inc. v. European Community which limited the extraterritorial powers of U.S. law in foreign affairs.
Daly told the panel applying TVPA to this matter would result in the unfair and illegal imposition of U.S. law on to foreign labor disputes.
“If read the way plaintiffs want it to be read, it will explode this statute,” Daly said.
U.S. Circuit Judges Marsha Berzon, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Ryan Nelson, also a Trump appointee, rounded out the panel, which did not indicate when it would rule.