A US court has awarded a total of US$5.43 million to seven Chinese workers who were forced to endure “extreme, dangerous and inhumane work conditions” at the construction site of a casino and resort on the Pacific island of Saipan.
Chief Judge Ramona Manglona of the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory, on Monday ordered Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International (IPI) to pay compensation for the workers’ lost income and future lost income, emotional distress, pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages.
Imperial Pacific International operates the US$3.1 billion casino and resort on Saipan. Its construction was contracted to four Chinese companies that brought in workers from China under a “tourist visa waiver programme” issued by the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Chinese workers had paid high recruitment fees to travel to Saipan for the building project, with the promise of good pay and conditions. But after having their passports confiscated they were forced to work long hours at below the US minimum wage and were denied medical care for injuries and threatened with deportation and even death, the judge found.
The judge described IPI’s conduct as “appalling” and said the labourers were forced to work under “egregious conditions”.
Manglona said her ruling was made after IPI had repeatedly failed to comply with court orders to exchange information with the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.
Wang Tianmeng, one of the seven plaintiffs, was found to have suffered burns to his lower left leg when a spark ignited as he was cutting a metal barrel at the site. He was denied medical treatment by his supervisor, who worked for Chinese contractor Gold Mantis Construction Decoration. The supervisor told Wang he would be arrested if he went to hospital and instead gave him two rolls of gauze. A doctor who later examined Wang said he suffered chronic pain and numbness and his left muscles had atrophied. Wang now struggles to walk for more than 15 minutes and has been unable to work since returning to China, the judge said.
In a statement following the ruling, one of the workers said: “There is no amount of money that can compensate for the psychological trauma, in view of my current circumstances and the level of injuries sustained.
“It is hard to let go of this shadow … it is a feeling ordinary people would find hard to comprehend.”
All of the seven workers have returned to China and the others declined to comment on the court’s ruling, citing increased sensitivity around the issue of forced labour in the country.
The plaintiffs sued Imperial Pacific together with Gold Mantis and MCC International Saipan. The latter two companies settled with the plaintiffs previously.
Separately in 2018, US officials announced settlements requiring Gold Mantis, MCC and two other Chinese construction firms to pay 2,400 workers on the casino project US$14 million in back wages and damages.
Aaron Halegua, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said they were pleased the court had recognised the egregiousness of IPI’s conduct and the severity of the workers’ suffering.
“This is an important decision because eradicating forced labour requires that perpetrators of such abuses face serious consequences,” he said.
IPI has yet to indicate whether it will appeal, according to Michael Dotts, a lawyer for the defendants.
The casino, Imperial Palace Saipan, has been closed since March last year, when the local government ordered it and many other local businesses to shut down due to the pandemic.
According to industry news site Casino.org, the Imperial Palace Saipan has failed to pay its annual US$15.5 million license fee and a US$3.1 million yearly regulatory fee, and it did not make a required US$20 million contribution to the island’s Community Benefit Fund in both 2018 and 2019.
An IPI Hong Kong office number listed on the company’s website has been disconnected while a second number is no longer registered.
The FBI raided the casino construction site in March 2017 after a worker died in a fall. Several supervisors working for the Chinese contractors were arrested or fled, leaving many Chinese workers stranded there and owed pay. The plight of the workers made headlines after they protested over their poor working conditions and unpaid wages.
Additional reporting by Associated Press