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August 18, 2016

Cambodian Labor Trafficking Victims Sue U.S.-Based Seafood Suppliers

By Lewis Golove

Survivors of human trafficking in the multi-billion dollar seafood industry filed suit this summer in federal court against California-based seafood importers that supply large U.S. customers like Walmart. They allege that these suppliers were part of "a joint venture that knowingly profited from trafficked labor in direct violation of both U.S. and international law."

The seven plaintiffs, impoverished farmers from rural Cambodia, were lured across the border into Thailand with promises of good jobs at good wages, only to find themselves buried in fraudulent debt, ruthlessly exploited and abused, and unable to return home.

Traffickers routinely exploit the economic plight of rural Cambodians, who live in crushing poverty. (Rice alone accounts for 30% of household expenditures.) The promise of a steady job paying $250 per year was so enticing to these plaintiffs that they were willing to mortgage their family farms and go deep into debt to pay the fees needed to secure the jobs. And yet, “when they finally returned home, these men and women had nothing to show for their hard labor and their families were poorer than before,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, lead attorney for the villagers.

The stories told by these victims reveal that their traffickers used familiar tactics of mental and physical abuse, control, and manipulation. After confiscating their passports, the traffickers loaded them into the back of trucks on top of one another like firewood, covered them with a tarp, and frequently beat them with a tire iron. Upon their eventual arrival at factory sites in Thailand, plaintiffs were informed that their debts were larger than anticipated, wages were lower, housing was deducted from their already reduced wages at exorbitant rates, and they had to purchase even the most basic tools needed to perform their jobs.

Plaintiffs were forced to work with dangerous chemicals without adequate protective equipment. They were paid so little that many were forced to scour the beaches for washed up seafood. They slept on concrete teeming with insects and didn’t have bedding, shelter from the elements, plumbing, or running water. They feared that if they left without their passports they would be imprisoned by Thai police or, even worse, kidnapped and sent to sea on a slave boat.

This lawsuit hopes to hold American-based companies accountable for knowingly profiting from the abuse and exploitation of these workers.

Human trafficking is a global epidemic. It is estimated that 21 million people worldwide live in conditions of modern slavery. It is a business that earns roughly $150 billion in profits each year. Despite increased public awareness, it remains almost entirely unchecked by law enforcement. There were only 4,443 convictions globally in 2014. Accountability for labor trafficking lags even further. Even though victims of labor trafficking make up a majority of all victims (approximately 68 percent), only 418 cases of forced labor were prosecuted globally in 2014.

“Fortunately,” Fryszman said, “in the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act [TVPRA], Congress gave trafficked workers the tools they need to obtain justice when companies knowingly profit from forced labor in their supply chains.”

TVPRA is a powerful and underutilized tool that can enable the United States to take the lead in combating trafficking. It is a way not only to prosecute domestic labor trafficking cases, but also to secure justice for people whose victimizers have intimate ties with U.S.-affiliated businesses.

For more information on the criminal process of human trafficking, check out our interactive webpage, Understanding Modern Slavery.