HOUSTON (CN) – Fifty-five Vietnamese workers say they were charged exhorbitant fees for jobs in America, then forced into indentured servitude and finally abandoned eight months later, “penniless and facing possible deportation.” Because they were not paid, they face the loss of their meager possessions in Vietnam put down against the fees, and, “Because defendants are in part owned by the government, plaintiffs fear for their lives and the lives of their families.”
Hanoi-based International Investment Trade and Service Group aka Interserco, and General Automotive Industry Corporation of Vietnam aka Vinamotors “advertised on Vietnamese television that high-paying jobs for welders were available in the United States,” the plaintiffs say in their federal complaint.
After being cheated and exploited, the workers say, the defendants fired them and replaced them “with a new set of hopeful, unsuspecting laborers from whom a fresh set of fees (and essentially free labor) could be collected under this fraudulent scheme.” (Parentheses in complaint.)
Lead plaintiff Thang Hon Luu says the defendants charged $7,000 to $15,000 for the promise of a 30-month job, and said he workers would have to pay them a portion of their wages in the United States.
In return, the defendants said, they would arrange the workers’ visas, travel, lodging, food and transportation to and from the job site in the United States, the plaintiffs say.
“In order to afford the venture, several of the plaintiffs were required to provide a deed of trust to their homes,” the workers say.
“After paying the required monies to the defendants, plaintiffs – along with many other similar laborers – were flown by defendants from Vietnam to Houston, Texas,” the complaint states.
“However, despite the promise of comfortable and adequate lodging, plaintiffs and the other laborers were divided into groups of four and each group was made to live in a run-down, dilapidated two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena, Texas. Living conditions at the apartment complex were deplorable.
“Plaintiffs’ days were filled with hard work and dreary, isolated living. Every day, a driver shuttled plaintiffs and the other laborers between work and the apartments; the driver was of Hispanic origin and did not speak Vietnamese, thus ensuring there would be no communication between plaintiffs and any outsiders.”
Once a week a driver took the workers to a supermarket to buy groceries, but transportation was not provided for anything else, the plaintiffs say. They also had no way to learn English as they had no access to TV, newspapers, or magazines, plaintiffs say.
“Plaintiffs were repeatedly threatened that if they had contact with outsiders they would be arrested or subjected to violence. Consequently, due to the repeated threats and coercion, even in the rare instance when plaintiffs interacted with outsiders, they did so secretly, never revealing their status as an indentured, export laborer. Plaintiffs and their fellow laborers, though living near the robust Greater Houston Vietnamese-American community, were in essence stranded and isolated,” the complaint states.
Eight months into their promised 30-month job, term the defendants fired them and told them to pack their things for immediate flights back to Vietnam, the workers say.
The defendants’ agents “simply refused to answer” when the workers asked why it was happening, the plaintiffs say.
“Plaintiffs were not able to recoup their down payments and expenses, much less make any money for themselves and their families. Additionally, on information and belief, defendants terminated plaintiffs and the other laborers and replaced them with a new set of hopeful, unsuspecting laborers from whom a fresh set of fees (and essentially free labor) could be collected under this fraudulent scheme,” the workers say.
Plus, now they are facing deportation.
“Further, because they were unable to earn any money as promised, plaintiffs are in danger of losing their houses and other meager possessions in Vietnam. More importantly, because defendants are in part owned by the government, plaintiffs fear for their lives and the lives of their families in Vietnam.”
The workers seek punitive damages from Interserco and Vinamotors, for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude and the Alien Torts Claims Act. They also seek damages for breach of contract, negligent hiring and conspiracy.
They are represented by Anthony Buzbee of Houston.