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US Seafood Firms Ordered to Conference in Forced-labor Suit

FILE- Female workers sort shrimp at a seafood market in Mahachai, Thailand, Sept. 30, 2015.
FILE- Female workers sort shrimp at a seafood market in Mahachai, Thailand, Sept. 30, 2015.

A federal judge in California has ordered attorneys representing two U.S. seafood companies to appear in court for a scheduling conference following a lawsuit filed on behalf of seven Cambodians who contend they were duped into a period of servitude in overseas fisheries that supply the firms.

The alleged victims — five men and two women — filed the complaint against the U.S.-registered companies, Rubicon Resources and Wales & Co. Universe, and Thai firms Phatthana Seafood Co. and S.S. Frozen Food Co. on June 15. In the complaint, the plaintiffs say they were tricked into working for the companies and were victims of “forced labor, involuntary servitude and peonage” between 2010 and 2012.

U.S.-based Wal-Mart is named among the buyers of Phatthana’s shrimp exports, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter ordered the attorneys to appear in court September 19 to present arguments and evidence. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will also present damage claims and explain their case for U.S. jurisdiction, which the defense claims is lacking.

“If counsel fail to file the required joint report or fail to appear at the scheduling conference, and such failure is not otherwise satisfactorily explained to the court, the cause shall stand dismissed for failure to prosecute, if such a failure occurs on the part of the plaintiff,” the court order said. “Default judgment shall be entered if such failure occurs on the part of the defendant.”

According to court documents, the defense team on August 3 said the court holds no jurisdiction because the alleged conduct occurred outside the United States. Plaintiffs' representatives countered that the court holds jurisdiction under both the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute, both of which can allow foreigners to seek redress for human rights violations for conduct occurring outside the United States.

A call to a defense attorney was not immediately returned.

The defense previously won a one-month extension from the original July 15 deadline to submit arguments and evidence, saying their clients were based in rural areas of Thailand that lacked internet access.

“Such a delay is like buying time to prepare something, [which] is not good [for us], because this case happened a long time ago,” Keo Ratha, one of the plaintiffs, told VOA's Khmer service.

Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, also said a quick conclusion of the case was desired.

“I don’t support this delay, because the victims have been waiting since 2012 and it’s now 2016,” he said. “They have been waiting for four years.”

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer service.