By Pacific Island Times News Staff
Seven construction workers from mainland China executed a settlement agreement this month to resolve their forced labor claims against the Imperial Pacific International casino.
This brings to nearly $6.9 million the total amount paid to the workers by the two Chinese construction firms who employed them and the casino.
The plaintiffs filed their original complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of the Northern Mariana Islands in December 2018, and an amended complaint was filed in March 2019.
In addition to the IPI casino, the defendants included MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co., a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), LLC, the subsidiary of a company traded on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
The two construction firms 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 at the time.
MCC and Gold Mantis reached a settlement with the plaintiffs during the discovery process. The court entered a default against IPI for its persistent refusal to provide the requested evidence.
In May 2021, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona then issued a default judgment against IPI for more than $5.4 million based on the plaintiffs’ forced labor claims under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, comprised of $2.95 million in compensatory damages 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.) The court described IPI’s mistreatment of the workers as “appalling,” and noted that “IPI was the driving force” behind the "egregious conditions" faced by the plaintiffs, all “while benefiting from” that exploitation.
The plaintiffs had paid high recruitment fees to go from China to Saipan based on false promises of high wages and good conditions. After arriving, the plaintiffs regularly worked over 12 hours per day, without rest, and sometimes performed 24-hour shifts.
They were paid below the minimum wage, or sometimes nothing at all, and housed in unsanitary, overcrowded dormitories where rats crawled on their bodies.
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. A supervisor who threatened to kill the workers 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.
The plaintiffs were represented by Aaron Halegua of Aaron Halegua, PLLC, an attorney based in New York City, and Bruce Berline of the Law Office of Bruce Berline, an attorney based in Saipan. The plaintiffs’ counsel was also assisted by Times Wang of North River Law PLLC.
Halegua offered the following comment on the outcome: “We were very pleased when the court recognized the egregiousness of IPI’s conduct and the severity of the suffering that it caused our clients. However, too many forced labor victims only obtain a piece of paper. We worked hard to ensure that the defendants paid the money awarded by the court, and are very pleased with this result.”
Berline joined in Halegua's statements and added, “Ending forced labor requires that the perpetrators of forced labor face serious consequences. We hope that this result will force IPI and other companies to act responsibly and stop benefitting from forced labor.”
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 said, “This significant victory should serve as a warning to all who would profit from forced labor. The spectacular result is a tribute to the tenacity and dedication of the legal team, and to the courage of these workers. Governments have failed victims of forced labor. In 2021, federal prosecutors brought just seven forced labor cases in the United States.
Strategic litigation is a powerful tool to hold perpetrators of forced labor accountable. Civil litigation under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act is essential to end this scourge. “
The lawsuit is Wang, et al. v. Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), LLC, et al., No. 18 Civ. 0030.
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 (RICO) conspiracy, harboring illegal aliens, unlawful employment of aliens, and international promotional money laundering.