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American Samoa cited in trafficking lawsuit as transit point

Stayed 4 days on a derelict boat, in Pago harbor, transported out on a fishing vessel

American Samoa’s name has again surfaced in a federal court case and this time, its a labor trafficking lawsuit with court documents citing the territory as the transit point for two fishermen from Indonesia heading to Honolulu to work on a fishing boat, where they ended up allegedly living in slavery conditions.

Filed at the federal court in San Francisco, the 42-page lawsuit by Abdul Fatah and Sorihin is against Thoai Nguyen, the captain and owner of the Sea Queen II, the fishing boat that the plaintiffs were fishermen on, but were able to “escaped slavery” when the boat dock in San Francisco more than four years ago.

The lawsuit give details of the travel route of the Indonesian men, who left Jakarta in August 2009 and took a series of flights to Singapore, Sydney, Fiji, and finally to Western Samoa, where they took a small plane into American Samoa.

Upon arrival in American Samoa, plaintiffs were picked up at the airport and taken to a dock, “where they boarded a vessel that was broken and stationary,” court documents says, but didn’t identify the name of the vessel or the specific “dock” in Pago Pago they were taken to. (For reference, there are several docks, all located in Pago Pago harbor.)

The lawsuit does say that the plaintiffs and six others fishermen were left to live and sleep on this boat for approximately four days, while they waited for the fishing vessel, Knowledge, to dock. During that time, four Filipinos also arrived and stayed on the same vessel, while waiting for the same fishing vessel.

“Food was only delivered one time per day, and Plaintiffs and the others had to beg local fishermen for extra fish to eat,” the lawsuit alleges. Hawai’i based company F/V KNOWLEDGE, INC. the lawsuit claims owns the Knowledge.

 “After a few days, the Knowledge arrived and docked next to the broken vessel. The Knowledge flew a U.S. flag,” the lawsuit says and points out that the group of eight Indonesians, including plaintiffs, and four Filipinos boarded the Knowledge.

It says the plaintiffs knew this was far in excess of the number of crew typically needed, on a fishing vessel of that size. Additionally, the Knowledge was extremely overcrowded. Only four crewmembers were identified as fishermen for the Knowledge and were required to work.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were forced to sleep outside on the deck, with only a plastic sheet to protect them from the elements; and the sheet did not protect them from the bitter cold, strong ocean winds, and water, and plaintiffs both became sick from this exposure.

It was also revealed, in the lawsuit, how these fishermen, who waited in Pago Pago, were then taken out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean for transfer to other fishing vessels.

After several days at sea on the Knowledge, plaintiffs were told that they would be transferred to the Sea Queen II, according to the lawsuit, which also stated the plaintiffs heard that other recruits (or fishermen) were going to other vessels, including the Sea Dragon and Kimmy.

According to the lawsuit, their employment contract from Indonesia was to work on the Knowledge. It also says that plaintiffs were warned by the Filipino fishermen that the Sea Queen II “was known to be an undesirable vessel to work on and that the captain was strict, stingy, and mean.”

The suit says, “Despite their concerns, plaintiffs had no choice. They were on the Knowledge, at an unknown location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, without any land nearby or any capacity to call anyone for help.”

Plaintiffs remained on board the Knowledge for approximately eleven days, until the Knowledge moored “skin-to-skin” with the Sea Queen II at an unknown location in the Pacific Ocean.

In rough waters, plaintiffs were directed to board a small dinghy and to pull themselves over to the Sea Queen II by a rope connecting the two vessels. Plaintiffs were, therefore, transferred against their will — and, contrary to the terms of the employment agreement they had signed.

The lawsuit cited harsh conditions on the Sea Queen II, the verbal abuse the plaintiffs in the hands of the vessel’s owner and captain as well as other problems. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were recruited by Jakarta based PT Shilla, which recruits crewmembers in Indonesia.

On the Sea Queen II, the lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were subjected to forced labor, fishing for tuna, swordfish, and other seafood, for up to 20 hours per day; denied medical treatment; and paid less than promised in their written contract.

Plaintiffs’ requests for help led nowhere, and plaintiffs eventually were able to escape when the Sea Queen II docked in San Francisco, California in April 2010.