California federal court documents – obtained by the Post yesterday – detail serious allegations against one of America’s top-three seafood importers in the orchestration of and complicity in human trafficking, as well as human and labour rights violations perpetrated against Cambodian citizens.
The documents were filed by lawyers representing Cambodian plaintiffs Keo Ratha, Sem Kosal, Sophea Bun, Yem Ban, Nol Nakry, Phan Sophea and Sok Sang. The seven had brought a civil suit against several companies belonging to the Thai-US conglomerate Rubicon Group, which the Canadian Agriculture Department lists as one of the three largest importers of seafood into the US and is widely reported to supply retail giant Walmart.
The companies lodged a motion to dismiss the case in August, but presiding Judge John Walter ruled last week that the case warranted a trial. Agnieszka Fryszman, an attorney for the seven Cambodians, said in an email yesterday that she and her clients were very happy with the judge’s decision.
“Hopefully this example and the strong precedent will inspire other survivors to enforce their rights,” said Fryszman.
The plaintiffs’ original complaint, filed June 15 this year, contains a litany of abuse allegations.
One section details how in 2011, Yem Ban and his wife, Nol Nakry, were smuggled to Thailand by recruitment agents along with two dozen others in a process that lasted more than a week and saw them packed into the back of a truck so tightly that they were forced to sleep lying on top of one another.
“Some of the workers asked to return home, but they weren’t allowed to leave. Instead, they were beaten,” it reads.
Further sections detail how, having arrived in Thailand, plaintiffs were stripped of their passports, forced to work under arduous and often unsafe conditions for less than the Thai minimum wage while paying for their own working equipment.
“At the factory, Mr Ratha was assigned to work with chlorine without being provided adequate protective equipment,” it reads. “Mr Ratha told his supervisor that he was finding it hard to breathe, but his supervisor ignored him. He asked to quit several times, but was told he could not leave.”
In a 2012 letter to Human Rights Watch, defendant Patthana Seafood Co denied violating employees’ labour rights, withholding their passports or holding them against their will. They also claimed to have no financial relationship with recruitment agents who smuggled employees to Thailand.
Phil Robertson – deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, which has been documenting abuse allegations against the defendants for half a decade – described Judge Walter’s decision as a step in the right direction.
“It’s about time that some American firms started to pay the price for their sourcing practices that emphasise low cost over paying minimum wages and respecting workers’ rights,” Robertson said.
The trial is scheduled to begin November 28, 2017.