Saipan--Federal Judge Ramona V. Manglona has awarded $5.9 million to seven Chinese workers who sued Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) for forced labor.
In a default judgment issued Monday, Manglona described IPI’s mistreatment of the workers as “appalling,” noting that “IPI was the driving force” behind the "egregious conditions" faced by the plaintiffs, all “while benefiting from” that exploitation.
“We are pleased to see that the court recognizes the egregiousness of IPI’s conduct and the severity of the suffering that it caused our clients. This is an important decision because eradicating forced labor requires that perpetrators of such abuses face serious consequences," said Aaron Halegua, a New York-based attorney, who represented the plaintiffs along with Saipan lawyer Bruce Berline.
“This decision marks a large step forward. IPI has known about the plaintiffs’ injuries for years, but has not paid them a penny. Instead, IPI has persistently denied responsibility for the treatment and injuries sustained by these workers who labored tirelessly to build its extravagant casino," Berline said.
"We hope that this judgment will force IPI to realize that its past conduct is reprehensible to both the court and the Saipan community, and serve as a catalyst for change,” he added.
The lawsuit said the workers had paid high recruitment fees to go from China to Saipan based on false promises of high wages and good conditions. After arriving, they said they regularly worked over 12-hours per day, without rest sometimes performing 24-hour shifts, and were paid below the minimum wage, or sometimes nothing at all.
The plaintiffs also complained about being housed in unsanitary, overcrowded dormitories where rats crawled on their bodies.
The court’s judgment awarded $2.95 million in compensatory damages to the seven plaintiffs and an additional $2.95 million in punitive damages. The court then subtracted the amounts recovered from earlier settlements between the plaintiffs and Gold Mantis and MCC—two Chinese contractors on the project.
According to the lawsuit, the defendants arranged for the plaintiffs to enter Saipan 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 and refused to take them to the hospital when they suffered injuries.
The workers alleged that a supervisor threatened to kill them if they complained or disobeyed him. The casino also denied a federal safety inspector access to the worksite, despite reports of a high number of injuries.
Compensatory damages were awarded to the plaintiffs for the emotional distress suffered while being subjected to forced labor as well as any lost income and pain and suffering caused by the physical injuries they sustained.
The court found that emotional distress compensation of $425 per day for the time that the plaintiffs were subjected to forced labor was reasonable given “the egregious conditions Plaintiffs were forced to work under.”
The court awarded $300,000 in pain and suffering damages to six of the workers, whose injuries included a scalded hand, crushed finger, and partially-severed finger, and $400,000 to plaintiff Tianming Wang, whose leg was engulfed by flames and who has been unable to work since the 2017 injury.
In awarding punitive damages of $2.95 million, the court found that "defendants’ conduct in this matter as a whole is appalling and IPI played no small part while benefiting from the endeavor."
Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, congratulated the legal team on this significant victory. The organization has published a report analyzing all civil cases filed in U.S. federal courts under the federal trafficking statute.
She noted that this is the first case of its kind in Saipan.
“This judgment demonstrates the redemptive power when trafficking survivors take justice into their own hands," Vandenberg said. "All workers who have suffered forced labor and exploitation should have the opportunity to obtain justice in U.S. federal courts.”
The original complaint against Gold Mantis Construction Decoration was filed in December 2018. An amended complaint was filed in March 2019, which joined MCC International Saipan and IPI as defendants and added a claim for forced labor under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co. is a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI) LLC, is the subsidiary of a company traded on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Each of these companies had previously described their work on the Saipan project as contributing to the “One Belt, One Road”—the signature foreign policy initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Plaintiffs have also requested that the court hold Lijie Cui, chair of Imperial Pacific International Holdings Limited board, in contempt for failing to comply with a court order to preserve the data on her mobile phone. The court previously held her in contempt for providing evasive and untruthful testimony at a deposition.
In August 2020, the court unsealed a 71-count criminal indictment charging executives of IPI and MCC with a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act conspiracy, harboring illegal aliens, unlawful employment of aliens, and international promotional money laundering.