A former executive for the US arm of a Chinese construction conglomerate went on trial on Tuesday, 5 March, on charges that he forced Chinese labourers to work on New York construction sites under a form of "debt bondage", Reuters reports.
Craig Heeren, an assistant US Attorney, told a federal court in Brooklyn that Dan Zhong, the president of China Rilin Construction Group, was "a leader of the US arm of a criminal enterprise that exploited forced labour for personal gain".
China Rilin Construction is a privately-owned conglomerate headed by Wenliang Wang, Zhong’s uncle.
Heeren said the company offered Chinese workers jobs in the US in return for pledges of large sums of money and, in some case, their family homes as security.
The prosecutor said the workers came to the US on visas that allowed them to work only on Chinese diplomatic facilities, but were also forced to work on private properties in the New York area, including Zhong’s own New Jersey home.
Heeren added that the workers’ passports were kept in a safe controlled by Zhong. He said workers were ordered to stay away from New York’s Chinese communities, where they would be able to talk to others. He claimed that those who tried to escape were recaptured, sometimes violently.
In one instance, an "escapee" was apprehended and thrown in a van, Heeren said, according to Reuters.
Robert Cleary, a lawyer for Zhong, responded that the Chinese workers came of their own free will to the US, where they could make up to five times as much money as they could at home. He told the jury they would hear evidence that workers who finished their contracts and returned to China received their deposits back with interest.
He added that Zhong was never involved in violence, and that evidence would tie some practices alleged by the prosecutors to another Rilin employee, Landong Wang, who was also charged in the case but is not in US custody.
Dietrich Snell, another lawyer for Zhong, questioned evidence from a fire inspector from Jersey City who responded to reports of overcrowded homes where the Rilin labourers were living. Though witnesses told prosecutors there were bars on the windows and locks that needed keys to be opened, even from the inside, Snell said none of the workers "was in any kind of shackles".
Zhong was arrested in 2016. His trial is expected to last two-to-three weeks.
Image: China’s New York embassy. The workers were cleared to work only on diplomatic property (Dreamstime)