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Federal court order documents human trafficking, slave labor crimes. Who benefitted? Who knew?

By Nancy I. Maanao

Saipan Congresswoman Tina Sablan, in a Facebook post Tuesday night, summed up a 40-page decision by a federal judge against the parent company that ran the casino in Garapan.

She said:

"Federal District Court Judge Ramona Manglona awarded 7 former Imperial Pacific International construction workers a $5.9 million judgment under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and found that IPI was complicit in, and knowingly benefited from, a human trafficking and forced labor scheme with subcontractors MCC and Gold Mantis."

The seven Chinese workers, among several brought to Saipan under false pretenses and then enslaved to the construction of the Best Sunshine casino, sued IPI and its construction subcontractors in federal court in 2018. Though the lawsuit was civil in nature, the workers were suing for damages resulting from crimes... federal and local crimes.

The judge's Decision and Order Entering Default Judgment Against Defendant IPI documents a factual background and evidence of the crimes committed against these seven workers as Judge Manglona explains how she arrives at the amount of damages each should receive from IPI.

While the award of damages to these seven workers provides a measure of civil relief, the question that remains is this: Who will be charged for the crimes the judge stated happened?

In a broader context, it is not so unbelievable that IPI and its co-defendants in this civil case had help from CNMI government officials, and even law enforcement officers who may have used the color of their authority to threaten and intimidate foreign laborers and others. It is not so difficult to fathom that those with a financial incentive to look the other way, really did look the other way when these people were treated inhumanely.

IPI has made quite a bit of money in Saipan. That wouldn't have happened without the help of government officials, including the governor. That money was made from an operation made possible literally off the backs of Chinese construction workers. That money was partially used to pay vendors of IPI, for reasons and transactions known only between IPI and its vendors. In a sense, one could say this was blood money.

According to a 2018 vendor listing, hundreds of vendors including politicians, businesses, and the families of politicians, were paid by IPI for everything from petty cash to land leases and legal and consulting fees. How many of these vendors knew of the allegations against IPI of human trafficking and slave labor? How many questioned whether their business with the casino would be shaded by the shadow of questionable ethics and illegal activity?

The judge's words in her order are chilling, and call into question who knew what, and whether they even cared. Was the money just that good?

Here are excerpts from Judge Manglona's decision:

"Plaintiffs are seven Chinese construction workers who bring claims against their former employers Gold Mantis and MCC and the project owner IPI under four causes of action: 1) forced labor under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act; (2) forced labor under the CNMI Anti-Trafficking Act; (3) negligence; and (4) liability for employees of subcontractor (for injuries). They were recruited by Defendants and/or their agents from China under false promises of good conditions, high wages, and legal work status. However, after paying high recruitment fees, Plaintiffs were instead subjected to over 12-hour work days without any rest and sometimes 24-hour work shifts, paid below legal minimum wage, crammed into dormitories, yelled at by their supervisors, forced to pay fines for arriving late or not working hard enough, and subjected to extreme, dangerous and inhumane work conditions on the Imperial Pacific Casino construction site in Garapan, Saipan. Furthermore, Defendants arranged for Plaintiffs to enter as “tourists” instead of under a lawful temporary work visa, took away their passports, instructed them to hide when government officials came to inspect the worksite or dormitories, threatened them from seeking medical care for their injuries, and failed to compensate them for their injuries suffered from working on the construction site—which varied from severe burns to damaged fingers or feet."

"MCC was the general contractor on the casino project. Three of the Plaintiffs were employed under MCC. During their employment with MCC, they had to pay an additional $2,000 recruitment fee upon arrival and work 12-hour or more work shifts with no rest. Plaintiffs under MCC were also never paid on time, paid less than minimum wage, forced to buy their own protective gear, threatened to be sent back to China given their unlawful status, and told that their complaints were useless given their immigration status. MCC’s managers also held on to Plaintiffs’ passports."

"Eventually, all of the Plaintiffs worked under Gold Mantis. A Gold Mantis manager charged Plaintiffs an additional $1,000 fee for their jobs. Under Gold Mantis, Plaintiffs similarly regularly worked 12-hour or longer days, including up to 24-hour shifts on occasion. They were not paid in a timely manner and, if paid at all, were paid less than minimum wage and less overtime than they performed. The Gold Mantis manager fined employees when they did not work hard enough, rested on the job, or refused a shift. He also threatened to physically harm and kill employees. Gold Mantis also threatened employees without immigration status that they would be deported or arrested if they went to government or medical authorities, instructed them that they could not go to public places or interact with others or else they would be deported, and actively hid them during inspections. All seven Plaintiffs sustained injuries during the course of their employment with Gold Mantis."

"As to IPI’s role, IPI was the developer that was granted an exclusive license to build the casino project in Saipan and that hired multiple Chinese construction firms including MCC and Gold Mantis to build the casino. IPI exercised significant control over the construction site, including its safety conditions; exercised control over which companies to hire or fire for the casino project; and directed the companies’ tasks. Furthermore, IPI knew or should have known about the use of unauthorized workers, the lack of compensation insurance, the lack of adequate safety at its construction site, and their contractors’ policies regarding hours and harsh punishments. IPI’s general counsel served as the authorized representative for both MCC and Gold Mantis in their applications for an exemption from a CNMI law capping the number of foreign workers that an employer may hire. IPI also arranged or provided the unsanitary housing for many of the unauthorized workers, including Plaintiffs, and owned or arranged the buses that transported the workers to the casino project each day. Furthermore, IPI assisted in hiding unauthorized construction workers from government investigators and denied an OSHA inspector who went to investigate multiple claims of injuries access to the casinos site."

"The Court also notes that nearly four years have lapsed since Plaintiffs have returned to China without compensation from IPI for their work-related injuries, and any further delays in this matter without compensation would be offensive to these Plaintiffs who suffered years after being subjected to forced labor and mistreatment."

"To be clear, Plaintiffs here seek damages pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, and their complaint sufficiency pleads facts upon which they may recover from IPI under the TVPRA. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants, including IPI, subjected them to forced labor in violation of the TVPRA under 18 U.S.C Subsections 1589, 1590, 1592, and 1595. Section 1589(a) provides criminal penalties for anyone who 'knowingly' obtains labor or services in four ways: (1) by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person; (2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or another person; (3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process; or (4) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint[.]"

"Section 1590(a) also provides penalties against anyone who 'knowingly recruits, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means, any person for labor or services in violation of this chapter.'"

"Plaintiffs also allege that Gold Mantis’ supervisor threatened to physically harm or kill them; that MCC held on to their passports; and that IPI provided buses that took unauthorized construction workers to and from the construction site and owned the dormitories in which unauthorized construction workers were housed. Accepting these facts as true for purposes of default against IPI only, the Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendants MCC and Gold Mantis have committed direct egregious acts in violation of Section 1589, and that IPI has also committed overt acts in violation of Section 1590 by harboring and transporting Plaintiffs for labor and services in violation of Section 1589."

"Important to this analysis, further, is that under the TVPRA, Section 1595(a) provides victims civil remedies, including damages and attorneys’ fees 'against the perpetrator (or whoever knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged in an act in violation of this chapter).'"

"IPI was deeply involved with selecting and supervising the contractors, knew of its contractors’ policies on work hours and harsh punishments, carried out the health and safety inspections, provided workers transportation to and from the construction site as well as housed the workers, knew about its contractors exploitative and illegal practices, and denied entry to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator who came to inspect safety conditions."

"Furthermore, IPI knew or should have known that unauthorized workers were being used to construct the Casino because the CNMI Lieutenant Governor told IPI that federal authorities were investigating the presence of unauthorized workers on the Casino Project in February 2017, around the same time period that all seven Plaintiffs were working on the project."

"Plaintiffs were recruited under false promises of lawful status to work and paid recruitment fees for doing so, only to be subjected to over 12-hour workdays with no rest and sometimes forced to work 24-hour shifts. They were paid far below minimum wage and sometimes not paid at all. They were also constantly screamed at by their supervisor, who threatened to harm or kill them sometimes, and were slapped on with excessive fines for taking a rest or being late. Plaintiffs were also told not to associate with others or contact authorities, and their managers constantly threatened them with deportation if they complained given their unlawful status. They were also crammed into filthy, overcrowded dormitories, sometimes with no showers and air conditioning, sometimes with up to 12 bunk beds, and sometimes where rats crawled over them. When Plaintiffs then suffered their physical injuries given the hazardous work conditions, they were told not to go to the hospital and were left to tend to their own medical injuries. During this entire period, Plaintiffs experienced stress, anxiety, depression, humiliation, and fear from being deported, of being harmed or killed, and of being unable to pay back loan sharks from whom they borrowed money from. The dehumanization they faced left emotional scars that persisted even after their return to China."

Judge Manglona narrated the physical, mental, and emotional injuries each of the seven Chinese workers suffered:

"Tianming Wang: Wang was cutting a metal barrel with a tool on March 17, 2017 at the IPI construction site at the direction of his Gold Mantis supervisor when a spark ignited, creating a flame that then engulfed his lower left leg. Gold Mantis’ supervisor refused him medical care, told him that he would be arrested if he went to the hospital, and instead only gave him two rolls of gauze."

"Dong Han: Han was stacking metal pipes at the site in March 2017 when the pipes shifted and crushed Han’s right pinky finger, causing bleeding, severe pain, swelling, and bruising. Gold Mantis refused to take him to the hospital or otherwise render any adequate medical care, which would have expedited his healing. Instead, he was forced to go back to work after the injury, lengthening the time for healing."

"Liangcai Sun: Sun was lifting and transporting large, heavy boxes in the lobby area of the casino site around January 26, 2017 when a box fell onto Sun’s left hand, smashing his finger. Such injury resulted in an “amputation of the tip of the left index finger that has been complicated by chronic pain and bone infection.” Gold Mantis’ supervisor told him not to go to the hospital given his unlawful status after the injury, but Sun nonetheless sought medical consultation on his own."

"Yongjun Meng: Meng and two other workers were loading a large, heavy vat of hot soup onto a vehicle for transport to the construction site in March 2017 when the soup spilled onto Meng, causing severe pain and burns to his left hand and leg and rendering him unable to work. As a result, Meng suffered “deep partial thickness burns to the dorsum of the left hand and a superficial partial thickness burn to an area of the left thigh.” When this incident occurred, Meng was not provided with gloves or any other protective gear for dealing with hot items. Gold Mantis’ supervisor told him not to go to the hospital and instead sent him to the dormitories without any medicine."

"Qingchun Xu: During his work at the site, a stone fell onto Xu’s left lower leg as he and another worker were using ropes to lift stones up a stair, inverting his left ankle. Gold Mantis refused to take him to the hospital."

"Youli Wang: Wang was injured around January 20, 2017 when the plywood carrying a load of steel beams snapped and sent the workers, including Wang, who were sitting on the beams, falling to the ground—from which the beams smashed Wang’s left hand and fractured his left ring finger."

"Xiyang Du: Du was moving heavy pieces of plaster around December 2016 when a large piece of it fell over and crushed his right hand middle finger, causing it to swell and bleed. Gold Mantis’ supervisor forbade him from leaving work to go home or seek treatment, thereby delaying his recovery."

Congresswoman Sablan, who for the past several years has been one of the few elected officials in the CNMI brave enough to stand up and question the casino and the government that enabled its behavior and the government officials who benefited from the arrangement, wrote in her Facebook post the following:

"I am happy for the seven workers who have finally received some measure of justice after enduring dangerous and inhumane conditions here and suffering terrible injuries for which they went years without compensation. I hope they are able to collect on their judgment, as swiftly as possible. They have waited long enough.
"Tonight I am thinking as well about the man who died, and the many other workers before and after these seven, people who were also victimized by this human trafficking and forced labor scheme, who also suffered injuries at a horrifically unsafe worksite. Many of these workers have departed Saipan, but the misery and trauma they experienced here must linger for them, too, as it clearly does for the seven who prevailed in this case, and whose stories are described in heartbreaking detail in court filings.
"Tonight I am thinking, too, of the complicity of our own government, our own leaders, who turned a blind eye to the atrocities happening here. There were a few, like former Labor Secretary (now Senator) Edith DeLeon Guerrero who tried to help, tried to do what was right, and paid a price for it. But there were many other government officials who, like IPI, knew or should have known what was happening. And they did nothing.
"I always look for the valuable lessons that can be learned from any adversity, no matter how awful. But we have such a long history of worker abuse in the CNMI, and sadly our ongoing experience with IPI seems to show how little we have learned from our past. The arc of the moral universe is long indeed, and I still believe it bends toward justice - but at particular points along this arc we may find that justice is too damn slow, or leaves too many people out. "And justice doesn't just happen. People have to work for it, fight for it, litigate for it, lose their jobs, stick their necks out, speak up, march in the streets, resist, raise hell, make trouble.
"I take heart in this wisdom of John Lewis: 'Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.'
"So here's to brave troublemakers, who light the path to justice for us all. And here's to the seven workers who finally got their judgment, and everyone who helped them along the way." - Congresswoman Tina Sablan

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