Vietnam, U.S. Clothiers Sued in|Grim Overseas Labor Complaint

     HOUSTON (CN) – More than 100 Vietnamese nationals say they were “assaulted, imprisoned, defrauded, and treated like indentured servants” making clothes for U.S. companies in Jordan, where labor contractors – and the Vietnamese government – lured them with promises of high-paying jobs.
     The workers were starved, beaten, imprisoned at the factory, and at least one died from the abuse, according to the federal complaint.
     The workers claim defendant U.S. companies Aramark and Academy Sports & Outdoors were part of an “international human trafficking conspiracy,” as they contracted the factory to make clothes for them.
     Lead plaintiff Thuy Thi Vu aka Phuong-Anh Vu sued a slew of companies and individuals, joined by co-plaintiff Jane and John Doe 1-109s, Boat People SOS, and its director Dr. Nguyen Thang.
     The lead defendants are W&D Apparel (Jordan) Corp. and its corporate parent, Well and David Corp.
     Also sued is Tran Viet Vu, deputy general consul of Vietnam in Egypt.
     The workers say Tran Viet Vu “facilitated the human trafficking of plaintiffs by either directly or indirectly approving the practices of labor export companies and/or W&D Apparel.”
     Also sued are Aramark Corp.; Academy Sports and Outdoors; the Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs; and several Vietnamese labor contractors.
     Phuong-Anh Vu says she was “the only plaintiff who escaped the gruesome conditions” at the factory, and that her call to a Vietnamese magazine led to an article about the workers’ plight that resulted in their rescue.
     Vu’s story is recounted in the 25-page complaint.
     “Phuong Anh Vu was born on November 11, 1978, and has two children, ages 17 and 15. In or around the end of 2007, when Phuong Anh Vu, a single mother of three, was living in Bao Yen, North Vietnam, she received a flyer from the village head about the poverty reduction project,” according to the complaint. “The police chief told her that it was a government program sponsored by the Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, to recruit workers to go overseas to work. The Department of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs is a department of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, and directs each of Provincial Peoples’ Committee (PPC).
     “The flyer referred interested candidates to an labor export company called Tang Cong Ty Gia Day (Tang), located in Xuan Thuy, Cau Giay, Hanoi. Phuong Anh Vu was recruited by a woman at Tang named La Thanh Khoung, who informed her that she would be sent to Jordan, but that first, she needed to learn Chinese.”
     Vu says she already spoke Chinese but the defendants made her pay to attend Chinese classes for 3 months.
     “Phuong Anh Vu was also charged another 1,000,000 dong to have a medical physical exam, another 1,000,000 for her passport, another 32,000,000 dong to pay the government to go work in Jordan, and other expenses totaling 2,000,000 to pay for food and lodging as she had to travel back and forth from Hanoi and her home. [The dong trades at about 21,000 to the dollar] Phuong Anh Vu mortgaged her house and land (worth about $53,000) as collateral to pay for these fees, totaling approximately 35,000,000 to 37,000,000 – the equivalent of $2,300, or five and half years of salary,” according to the complaint.
     It continues: “At 9:30 p.m. on January 28, 2008, Phuong Anh Vu and others were called to sign or stamp their thumbs on their contracts. They were not given a chance to read the contracts, and told that if they did not sign, they could not go to Jordan the very next day. The next day, January 29, 2008, Phuong Anh Vu and over 20 other workers were transported to the airport in Hanoi and each given a sealed envelope and told not to open them. They were instructed to hand these packages – unopened – to the managers in Jordan.
     “Defendants promised Phuong Anh Vu and the others that they would be paid $220 a month, working 8 hours a day, plus incidentals of $80 extra a month, for a total of $300 per month for three years to sew clothing for a foreign company in Jordan.
     “Plaintiffs were transported by Air Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, then to Qatar, and then to Jordan. They were alone on the plane, hungry and tired.
     “Phuong Anh Vu arrived after 9:00 p.m. at the airport in Jordan. Defendants’ agent, holding a sign that stated ‘W&D Apparel,’ greeted them, took their packages, and transported them to the factory. They worked until midnight that day. The next day, they worked from 8:00 a.m. until midnight. After that, they were forced to work daily until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
     “Ten days later, plaintiffs each received only a minimal payment of $10 for ten days of working 16 hours a day.
     “Phuong Anh Vu complained about the insufficient wages, and the owner stated her low compensation was due to the fact she was on probation for three months.
     “Phuong Anh Vu discovered other Vietnamese workers who received $120 a month for working every single day for over 16 hours a day, except for two Sundays off a month. Others received about $80 a month for 16 hour days, with only a few days off a month. The Vietnamese workers were housed on the second floor of the factory.”
     The plaintiffs say they signed a petition asking for better working conditions and the wages they were promised, but the factory owner “stated he was just following his contract,” and said they should call their Vietnamese representative.
     “Phuong Anh Vu called La Thanh Khuoung at the labor export company in Hanoi to complain about the work conditions and low wage. She was instructed not to complain, and to stay with the job. Phuong An Vu became angry and encouraged others to begin a strike on Chinese New Year, February 7, 2008, to protest the horrendous working conditions and until they received their rightful wages
     “A few days later, the owner locked up all the workers on the second floor of the factory. The owners did not allow plaintiffs to leave from February 17, 2008 until March 29, 2008.
     “On about February 20, 2008, policeman were called to the factory and physically dragged out workers who were weakened from malnutrition, assaulted the workers with their fists, long batons, and sprayed them with fire extinguishers. One of the plaintiffs later died after being hit in the stomach with a stick. Plaintiffs witnessed her death. In fact, she was holding another severely beaten victim, while she was dying,” according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs say in late February 2008 the defendants cut off their food, and many workers got sick.
     “Finally, Phuong Anh Vu contacted a Vietnamese magazine, Tuoi Tre Magazine (youth magazine), by phone, and they published an article that caught the attention of Dr. Nguyen Thang, founder of Boat People SOS, dealing in trafficked victims.
     “Plaintiff, Dr. Nguyen Thang then contacted the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to intervene. IOM then rescued the workers from the factory and sent the sick workers to the hospital.
     “Ultimately, the government officials also labeled Phuong Anh Vu as an anti-government protester. Knowing she was in danger upon her return to Vietnam, Phuong Anh Vu managed to separate herself from the group during a stopover at the Bangkok airport. She escaped to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and was admitted to the United States as a refugee.” (Parentheses in original.)
     The complaint continues: “Investigation revealed that the tags on the clothing were labels for Aramark and BCG Clothing. BCG is sold exclusively at Academy Sports. Phuong Anh Vu also learned through one of the managers, named Tang Shuai, that his company, W&D Apparel, had signed a contract with Aramark to produce uniforms for students in the United States.
     “From at least March 2008 to November 2009, defendants Aramark and Academy were on notice of the treatment of the workers responsible for making the clothing which they were to receive pursuant to their contracts with W&D Apparel.
     “Aramark eventually contracted with a private company to monitor W&D Apparel’s operations in Jordan. Eventually, in November 2009, Aramark terminated its relationship with Defendant W&D Apparel.”
     The complaint does not say whether Academy has cut ties with W&D Apparel.
     “Vietnamese officials and policeman continue to harass and threaten plaintiff Phuong An Vu’s family, telling them that she had become a bad person, unpatriotic and anti-government. Phuong An Vu’s 16-year-old daughter was expelled from a prestigious government school in Vietnam, stating that she was an undesirable unpatriotic influence,” according to the complaint. “As a result of defendants’ actions, plaintiffs have suffered irreparable emotional and physical harm, pecuniary loss, threats, and even death, which would have never occurred without defendants’ idle promises of a better life that only served to exploit and lure innocent people who trusted them.”
     The plaintiffs seek punitive damages of $100 million for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, violation of the Alien Tort Claims Act, violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, conspiracy, breach of contract, negligence, negligent hiring, fraud, false imprisonment, defamation and tortious interference.
     They are represented by Mark Burck with Burck, Lapidus, Jackson and Chase, with assistance from Gordon Quan, with Houston-based Lawyers Against Human Trafficking, and Naomi Bang with the Human Trafficking Law Clinic at the South Texas College of Law.

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