“Appalling” exploitation: Casino owner to pay $5.9m to seven Chinese workers in US jurisdiction

A Chinese casino operator has been ordered to pay seven Chinese construction workers a total of $5.9m in damages for what the court described as "egregious" and "appalling" mistreatment suffered while building its Imperial Pacific casino and resort in the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the US in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

The ruling against casino operator Imperial Pacific International (IPI) was handed down on 24 May by Judge Ramona Villagomez Manglona, the Chief United States District Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

Seen by GCR, her ruling found that the seven workers were lured to the island with the promise of good wages and conditions. They paid high recruitment fees, but were instructed to enter the territory as tourists. Then their passports were confiscated, rendering them as without legal status.

They were housed in rat-infested dormitories, forced to work shifts lasting between 12 and 24 hours, threatened with death if they complained or disobeyed, and were denied treatment for serious injuries sustained at the dangerous work site. The men were ordered to hide when government officials inspected worksites or dormitories.

Six of the workers were awarded $300,000 in "pain and suffering damages" for injuries including a partially-severed finger, a crushed finger and scalded hand.

$400,000 was awarded to Tianming Wang, who has been unable to work since owing to a severe burn sustained on site, for which medical treatment was refused.

The plaintiffs had claimed damages worth just under $11.6m, but the judge awarded $5.9m partly in consideration of the fact that two Chinese contractors on the project, Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), LLC and MCC International Saipan Ltd., had previously settled out of court, leaving IPI as the remaining defendant.

In her decision, the judge stated that IPI "benefited from being able to quickly obtain foreign construction workers that could be compelled to work long hours for low wages with little to no rest".

Image via Imperial Pacific

She went on: "IPI was deeply involved with selecting and supervising the contractors, knew of its contractors’ policies on work hours and harsh punishments, carried out the health and safety inspections, provided workers transportation to and from the construction site as well as housed the workers, knew about its contractors exploitative and illegal practices, and denied entry to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator who came to inspect safety conditions."

For "emotional distress compensation", plaintiffs were awarded $425 for each day worked on the island over the period, which included 2016 and 2017.

"We are pleased to see that the court recognises the egregiousness of IPI’s conduct and the severity of the suffering that it caused our clients," said Aaron Halegua, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs. "This is an important decision because eradicating forced labour requires that perpetrators of such abuses face serious consequences."

Also representing the plaintiffs, attorney Bruce Berline said: "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 laboured tirelessly to build its extravagant casino.

"We hope that this judgement will force IPI to realise that its past conduct is reprehensible to both the court and the Saipan community, and serve as a catalyst for change."

Martina Vandenberg, the Human Trafficking Legal Center’s president, said: "This judgment demonstrates the redemptive power when trafficking survivors take justice into their own hands. All workers who have suffered forced labor and exploitation should have the opportunity to obtain justice in U.S. federal courts."

The case against IPI began in 2019.

Top image: @GCR illustration by Denis Carrier

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