When nine Vietnamese women arrived at Virginia Lynn Sudbury’s small law office in Pago Pago, on the island of Tutuila in the territory of American Samoa, she wasn’t certain she would take the case. The women, workers at the Daewoosa garment factory, were trying to get the company to pay them their promised wages. She decided to take the case, however—not knowing that it would take years to resolve.
Sweatshops in Paradise tells the first-person account of the notorious garment factory/sweatshop class-action lawsuit Nga v. Daewoosa, which took place in the territory of American Samoa from 1999 until 2001. This precedent-setting case drew international attention to the issues surrounding involuntary servitude and trafficking in human beings in far-flung US territories.
Written by Sudbury, who acted as the lead plaintiff attorney, Sweatshops in Paradise narrates the story of some three hundred Vietnamese and Chinese workers who were brought to American Samoa to work in the Daewoosa garment factory. There, they encountered civil injustices, rampant abuse, and imprisonment at the hands of the Korean factory owner and the local government.
Chronicled in a frank, disarming, and at times humorous manner, Sweatshops in Paradise draws upon hearing transcripts, newspaper articles, and narratives from the largest lawsuit of American Samoa’s history. It provides a poignant accounting of the fears of the workers and the abuses they endured, the impunity of the factory owner, and the incomprehensible neglect of the evolving and tragic situation by the American Samoa government.
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SWEATSHOPS IN PARADISEA True Story of Slavery in Modern America
By Virginia Lynn Sudbury
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Virginia Lynn Sudbury
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTrouble Brewing
I believe it all started when Renee's dog committed suicide. It was in December 1999, around the first day of summer in Pago Pago, island of Tutuila, Territory of American Samoa.
The deceased, Midnight, had been an irritable big black dog with enormous teeth who was given to terrorizing passersby, me especially. Our law office was in an old house up the hill in the village of Fagatogo, and we had to pass Renee's house—and hence, Midnight—several times a day just to get to and from our office. I generally ran past that house at top speed; Rob just laughed and carried rocks. Finally, Renee decided something had to be done and secured Midnight to a stair railing with a long leash. One morning, rather than face a future that had him tied forever to the back steps, Midnight hurled himself off the top step and hanged himself. Renee's family, being a stalwart and realistic bunch, were not entirely undone. I later heard they got some kitties.
It probably wasn't the suicide, per se. It was like the winds changing, and the fact that once a girl sees a dead enemy dog hanging by its neck on her way to work, she knows that just about anything can happen.
* * *
"Virginia, can a woman get a divorce if her husband won't let her?" Grace, our secretary, wanted to know. Rob and I had just come into the office after walking up the hill and thinking of Midnight dangling from Renee's back steps. Her question got my mind off the death theme.
Our law office boasted a small (in number) but fiercely loyal Samoan staff. Grace, a mild, twenty-something mother with a soft New Zealand accent, was our secretary and receptionist and translator. She was the invaluable one who remembered faces and stories and helped me most. She tried to bring me coffee, but I dissuaded her with talk of feminist political correctness; when I brought her coffee, she was appalled. She wore the traditional muumuu or puletasi and had dark, curly hair. She had lived in New Zealand for her growing-up years. Many islanders had lived in New Zealand or Australia or had people there.
Our investigator was a kind, good-natured young Samoan man named Petita. He was taller than six feet two inches and weighed about 350 pounds. He had dark hair and a ready smile, and he would have walked through fire for Rob. He was one of the most loyal employees we'd ever known—not to mention one of the strongest. When we moved our office from Fagatogo to Nu'uuli, we rented the upstairs in a large building. We had to truck all the office equipment, books, files, and furniture up an outside full flight of stairs. I had just brought up something heavy, like a desk blotter, and had to stop to fan myself on the landing at the top of the stairs. Petita was hunched over below me, climbing the stairs. He carried a tall, four-drawer file cabinet on his back. The file cabinet was full. It weighed as much as a Volkswagen. He walked right up to the top of those stairs and set the file cabinet gently down next to me on the landing.
"Heavy," he said, grinning.
Our tiny office may not have been up to Baker & McKenzie standards, but it suited us just fine.
I walked into my office and looked at my Eleanor Roosevelt poster. She looked startled. I looked at my desk. It was covered with termite poo, or chewings, or whatever it is termites expel when they tear down a building in the tropics. By this time Rob and I had expanded the law office into half the upstairs space, so I was personally concerned with the fortitude of the building. Already there were weak areas in the floor, so when a large person—say, a Samoan—walked through the office, the floor heaved tremendously and made noises anticipating an immediate cave-in. (I could imagine the headline in the Samoa News: Client Falls through Second Floor, Needs Off-Island Therapy for Life; Lawyer Responsible.)
* * *
Grace buzzed. "Your eight o'clocks are here, Virginia." I looked at my calendar. This appointment was to be with a group of Vietnamese women who were brought from Vietnam to labor in the Daewoosa garment factory in the village of Tafuna. I believed they had a wage claim.
Grace escorted them into my office. There were nine of them. They were small women and looked even smaller to me then, as I was used to a larger local norm. They smiled shyly at me and held their hats and parasols in their hands. I had one lopsided black futon couch in my office, and they all sat on it. They all fit. They had dark, straight hair and extraordinarily bright eyes. They were a bit anxious but nonetheless looked at me directly. I felt an unspoken but palpable exchange of burdens.
Finally one of the women spoke. "I am Vu Thi Kim Dung. You know. I have some English." She pronounced her calling name "Zoong." She introduced the other women. I asked her where she and the other women lived.
"At Daewoosa compound, except for me."
"Where do you live?"
"At Ma and Pa Jones's."
"Where did you live before Daewoosa?"
"Where are your families?"
"How much are you paid by Daewoosa?"
"You know. No money; many months no money."
The meeting went on for some time. They became less anxious and more at ease and told me Daewoosa owed them wages for sewing. It was difficult for me to completely understand them, and for them to understand me, I'm sure. I wasn't unfamiliar with the difficulties of speaking a language different from my clients': I was a palagi (non-Samoan) in a Samoan world. Dung was still learning English but doing an admirable job at translating, especially at the times when there were ten people talking at once.
I got out several yellow pads, and we all drew pictures and handed them back and forth. The picture emerging was dismal. It appeared that the workers were owed money for back wages, and four of them had gone to see the Korean factory owner and operator, Kil-Soo Lee, the past April. They were thrown in the Tafuna Correctional Facility. The rest of the workers were told if they continued to push for their wages, they would be deported back to Vietnam. There would be a severe financial penalty—or worse—in store for them and their families.
"Why did you want to work in American Samoa in the first place?" I asked.
Dung translated this inquiry. The women exchanged glances, while several frowned at me. They conversed at length.
Finally, Dung answered. Her words echoed the sentiment held by immigrants throughout the years. It was a desire driven by ambition, a notion of freedom, and the hope of a better and more prosperous life. "It has the chances."
Grace buzzed me from the outer office, alarmed: Petita had discovered that a minion of the factory owner had covertly followed the workers to our office. Grace knew the man; he was a respondent in a particularly ugly domestic violence divorce case and was apparently doing a favor (or working) for Lee.
I told the women that I wasn't sure about taking the case. We walked into the outer office and set up another meeting for the next day at Adeline and Dale Jones's house in Pago Pago. The man who had followed them scooted into the office of the attorney with whom I shared space.
Dung tugged at my arm and pointed at him as he disappeared into the private office. "You know. That man, he is no good." She wagged a finger after him. "He follows us to your office. Mr. Lee is his friend."
One of the ladies clucked her tongue. "He is bad, bad for the workers."
"Ah," I said. "We'll see."
"Virginia," Dung stated. She turned and looked evenly into my eyes. "Will you help us?"
I hesitated. It looked like a simple wage claim to me, but there was that dead dog this morning. Something was afoot. Nine pairs of black and eager eyes now appraised me.
Dung touched my arm and smiled. "You know. You are the lawyer. You can help us," she said.
I turned and saw Grace looking at me, and Rob as well. Grace had her head turned entreatingly to one side. She seemed to echo Dung's words. Rob had that set look that roughly translates to "You can do anything you want if you try" or something equally and nauseatingly "cheerleaderish." I felt like Fred Gailey, that lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street, when Kris Kringle wanted help getting out of Bellevue. "I know you can get me out of here!" he told Fred. "I believe in you!"
The ladies were looking at me with trusting reliance. I had seen that same look on the faces of other clients. It meant that a load was now being shared, and shouldered, and some relief was being asked and some was being given. It made me feel older, and I wondered if this was supposed to make me wiser. I had been practicing law fewer than four years, and what I didn't know was astronomical.
"All right," I said, biting my lower lip. "Sure." The ladies nodded and filed out of the office, opening their parasols as they stepped into the bright Pago Pago sun.
* * *
American Samoa Congressman Ene [Faleomavaega Jr.] is concerned that BCTC [the local garment factory and forerunner to Daewoosa] is not doing enough to pave the way for local hires to take over from the Chinese sewers when their three-year permits expire in seventeen months. There is very little absenteeism amongst the Chinese, but the same cannot be said of the Samoan workers, who are very often absent. BCTC fired 261 local hires in a recent three-month period.
Re impending Daewoosa: Ene recalled the problems that Saipan has and stated he and Tauese definitely do not want American Samoa to become the home of an industry that relies on foreign workers. —Samoa News, May 30, 1997
* * *
Rob and I decided to take the case pro bono. That really wasn't my intention at the outset. I was having a hard enough time billing for my services and kept taking things in trade when I knew clients couldn't really afford to pay cash for legal representation. (I got some swanky items in trade over the years: Samoan war clubs, chickens, breadfruit, and the like. Once I even got a wooden clock in the shape of a pineapple with a picture of downtown Waikiki Beach at night lacquered on the front.)
I knew that local attorneys Barry Rose and Jennifer Joneson, along with the US Department of Labor, had helped some of the Daewoosa workers earlier that year, and I spoke with them about the case. I realized there were some labor-related employment issues that I didn't normally encounter and could barely spell. Rob could handle the paralegal work for the case, but I knew I was in over my head and wanted cocounsel.
I called Christa Tzu-Hsiu Lin, a bright lawyer who had come to the territory two years before as a judicial law clerk for the High Court of American Samoa. Christa excelled in her prestigious position. She was Chinese American, spoke Mandarin, and was raised in Texas—a feisty and intellectual combination. Christa had ended her clerkship at the High Court and was now working as legislative counsel at the Fono, the American Samoa government (ASG) equivalent of the United States Congress. She was permitted by her employer to take private cases. She agreed to cocounsel the case.
Christa and I met with a number of the Daewoosa ladies and with a few Daewoosa gentlemen the next day. Many of the workers were present at the Jones's house, which was a beautiful two-story colonial overlooking Pago Pago Bay. Like most of the houses built on the island, louvered windows ran completely around the structure, which let in the almost-constant breeze off the water. Dale, in his sixties, was a former territorial liaison to the United States Secretary of Interior. Adeline, about the same age, was afakasi—half-palagi and half-Samoan. Her mother had been the premier tapa (bark cloth) maker on the island, and Adeline had maintained the tradition. She was a tall, queen-like woman.
Christa, Adeline, Dale, Dung, and I sat at the main table, along with a worker named Ngyuen Thi Nga. Nga's mouth was shaped like a rosebud. She held a little sailor cap in both her hands and occasionally worried at it. The wind shifted and blew the fumes in from the tuna cannery across the bay. Adeline lit a menthol Benson & Hedges. I seized upon the excuse and whipped out a pack of Marlboros stashed in my purse. Rob and I had both quit smoking cigarettes, but only one of us actually stuck to it. I was forced to cop furtive puffs here and there, brush my teeth in my car, and eat heaps of Altoids. The wages of dishonesty are steep, but I did have nice breath.
"What do we know?" I asked.
"I've talked with Department of Interior," Dale said. "They're trying to work with immigration and to get Dung asylum status in the United States. She absolutely does not want to return to Vietnam."
"Is that possible?" Christa wanted to know.
"It's really difficult. There are a lot of channels to go through, and at the minimum she has to show a 'well-founded fear' of returning to her native country, Vietnam."
"Dung." Adeline poked her in the arm. "Are you afraid of going home?"
"You know." Dung narrowed her eyes and considered her folded hands. "I got a letter from my sister; she works at the Twelve Company. She says I might be in trouble, and maybe my mom also."
"Can we see the letter, Dung?" I asked. I hated prying into little crevices of intimacy in people's lives, but it seemed necessary to the case. "Do you have it?"
"Yes, downstairs." She went off to retrieve the letter.
"Adeline, what is that business about her mom being in trouble?" Christa asked.
Dale answered, "Dung's mother put up the original four thousand dollars for her recruitment fee so she could come and work for Daewoosa. She put up her house, and she's afraid she'll lose it if IMS thinks that Dung violated the contract."
"Can I see her contract?"
Dung returned and handed me the letter, along with several other papers. Among them was a document that looked like an employment contract.
"Do you have one of these also, Nga?" Christa asked.
"Yes. We all do." Nga produced her contract, and several of the other workers did as well. I collected the sheets of paper and handed them to Christa. "But I don't want to go to the United States; I want to go back to Vietnam."
Several of the workers nodded vigorously in agreement.
One of the Daewoosa men workers had a question. "What if we get in trouble for the lawsuit?"
"What trouble?" I asked. "Trouble for what?"
Everyone now spoke rapidly, mostly in Vietnamese.
Dung waved her hands in the air, shushing the workers, and answered me. "You know, Virginia. In Vietnam we have a problem, we cannot bring the lawsuit. If we bring the lawsuit, we cannot work. We cannot say what is bad to the company or the government. It is the same here?"
Christa shook her head earnestly and answered. "No, Dung, it's not the same here. Anyone is allowed to bring a lawsuit and they don't get in trouble for doing so."
"They don't lose their jobs?" a woman named Thuy asked.
She looked skeptical.
"Uh, no, not in theory," Christa replied.
"But Dung has already lost her job! Mr. Lee told her not to work anymore," Nga reported, looking grave.
"She had a choice, Nga," Adeline replied. "Dung decided to come live here and leave Daewoosa compound."
"But she got put in the jail." Nga was undeterred. "Will we get put in the jail?"
This caused another uproar of rapid Vietnamese among the group.
"No!" I practically yelled. "Probably not I mean! This is America! We have a Constitution that protects us all!" I grabbed a yellow pad from my book bag and drew a picture of the United States. It looked more like a sponge, but I wrote "USA" on it and the workers all nodded in seeming understanding. My artist's depiction of the United States was fairly big on the page.
"And this! This is Vietnam!" I drew a teeny little speck over to the west. "Here, in Vietnam, something may be illegal. But here, in the big United States, we all have rights." I wrote RIGHTS in big letters. "Lots of rights! We can all think any way we like and express our opinions. We can hang out with anyone we want. If someone treats us badly, we can complain against him or her. And no one can make us work without giving us our wages. Do you understand?"
Thuy looked unconvinced. "But, in Vietnam ..." she began.
"This is not Vietnam! Look at the map!" I tapped it for emphasis. "Look how much bigger the United States is!" I was ranting and possibly losing the crowd. Dale chuckled.
I shot him a look. "Might does not make right!" I had recently reread Idylls of the King and was in a passion over the rule of law. "Right is right, and right will out. I'm sure of it." I was whining visibly now. "The United States doesn't condone this sort of behavior, and neither does the American Samoa government. They won't let this go on; we'll file the lawsuit and bring it to their attention and you—all of the workers—will be paid their wages. The ASG is not going to risk this much ill public sentiment over nonpayment of wages, and the court certainly will not allow such a thing to continue. Wait and see."
Later, Christa and Rob and I tried to piece together the workers' story based on the information they gave us. It was workers' story based on the information they gave us. It was like starting a jigsaw puzzle without the final picture. (I figured it for a Gary Larson cartoon, the one that pictured a dingo farm next to a baby nursery with the caption "Trouble Brewing.")
Excerpted from SWEATSHOPS IN PARADISE by Virginia Lynn Sudbury Copyright © 2012 by Virginia Lynn Sudbury. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One—Trouble Brewing....................1
Chapter Two—Justice Is Blind—Get Out of Her Way....................12
Chapter Three—A Very Curious Girl....................24
Chapter Four—It's Not the Third World, but We Can See It from Here....................38
Chapter Five—Speak Truth to Power....................53
Chapter Six—Walking Spanish....................69
Chapter Seven—Not Waving but Drowning....................83
Chapter Eight—It's Chinatown, Jake....................96
Chapter Nine—Feeling Heaven Slipping....................115
Chapter Ten—Your Story's Touching but It Sounds Like a Lie....................121
Chapter Eleven—I Am the Mouth, Screaming....................142
Chapter Twelve—Unfettered and Alive....................152
Chapter Thirteen—Keep Swimming....................158
Epilogue—The SOS Hepl Letter....................161