Chinese casino operator sued by former workers over trafficking, forced labour claims

A group of construction workers are suing Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific and two other Chinese firms alleging they were victims of a human trafficking and forced labour scheme.

The lawsuit’s seven plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages to recoup high recruitment fees and and medical costs from injuries suffered on the job including severe burns and a partially severed finger.

These workers were among thousands of Chinese labourers brought to the tiny island of Saipan, a US commonwealth, in 2016 and 2017 to build a casino report owned by Imperial Pacific.

Job agents lured them to the tropical island with the promise of high wages and a green card if they paid recruitment fees of more than US $8,000 (£6,045), according to an amended lawsuit filed Friday in a US federal court in Saipan. Many borrowed money from loan sharks at high interest rates, using their property or homes as collateral.

But upon arrival, the men were forced to work 12-hour shifts, including at times around the clock for 24 hours, and not allowed to rest. Living conditions were squalid, and supervisors “forced them to pay fines if they did not work hard enough or arrived late,” according to court documents.

One manager, after beating up some workers, even threatened to kill employees if they disobeyed him. Those who suffered injuries given safety hazards and lack of job training were never taken to the hospital, and told they’d be arrested and deported given their temporary tourist visas and lack of proper work permits.

As China’s ambitions grow with its Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment plan meant to boost its global clout, and a growth slowdown occurring back home, experts say more Chinese workers will be interested in seeking fortunes overseas and thus risk being tricked into illegal work.

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“As the economy begins to slow in China and well-paid work is harder to come by for a lot of the unskilled workers, the option of going to work abroad again might become attractive, even though these problems of workers abroad is well-known," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group. 

Imperial Pacific won an exclusive gaming license in Saipan in 2014, after which Chinese investment skyrocketed. But after a Chinese worker died on the Imperial Pacific casino construction site in 2017, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the site and discovered illegal workers, along with hundreds of their passports locked in cabinets and documents listing employees as “heigong,” meaning illegal labourer in Chinese, according to court documents.

US labor officials investigated and announced settlements last March with four of Imperial Pacific’s construction contractors to pay $14 million in back wages and damages to 2,400 affected workers.

The companies were found by US authorities to have paid labourers far less than required by law, and failed to secure work authorisation by exploiting a visa waiver program that allows Chinese nationals to travel to Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands.

For many of those workers, this was their first trip to the US and a shot at chasing the American Dream, several of them told the Telegraph last year, and still remained in debt given owed back wages and high fees paid to agents.

The two other Chinese firms listed in the lawsuit as defendants are subsidiaries of MCC, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, and Gold Mantis, a firm listed in Shenzhen. Neither of the companies, nor Imperial Pacific, immediately responded to requests for comment.

“Many foreign migrant workers suffer injuries and endure abuse, but have no access to a remedy,” Aaron Halegua, a New York attorney assisting in representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement. But “because these events occurred in a US Commonwealth, the plaintiffs are protected under US law.”