Slave-labour victims get nod to enforce $67m US claim here

The quest by three modern-day slaves for US$80 million (S$107 million) in restitution has come to this port of call.

Three Cuban slave-labour victims were given the High Court's go-ahead to enforce a US$50 million (S$67 million) claim won in a United States court against any assets that a drydock firm based in the Caribbean has here.

The High Court rejected the bid by Curacao Drydock Company to set aside the US judgment, making clear the claims were enforceable in Singapore as they were meant to compensate the victims, not punish the company.

"There is no purpose in setting aside a judgment if there is not going to be something to be gained by having a trial," said Justice Lee Seiu Kin in judgment grounds released yesterday.

He clarified that a foreign judgment may be given effect under the common law if it satisfied the legal requirements of the court here.

The judge dismissed Curacao Drydock's appeal against an assistant registrar's decision last year, thus rejecting its move to set aside the judgment.

The court enforcement order here allows the Cubans to garnish, or seize, any monies owed by Singapore firms to Curacao Drydock.

Singapore-registered ships, for instance, may owe Curacao Drydock money after using its shipyard services, and these debts could be legally seized to settle the judgment sum.

Mr Alberto Licea, 49; Mr Fernando Henandez, 49; and Mr Luis Toledo, 37, all ship construction technicians, were made to work 16-hour shifts in harsh conditions, doing demanding and dangerous tasks on ships and oil platforms for up to 15 days straight.

They were found to have suffered significant physical injuries which led to psychological damage while working for Curacao Drydock on the island of Curacao.

They had been forced to travel and work there by the Cuban government as part of a scheme to pay off the country's debts. The men escaped and went to Colombia in 2005 before they were allowed to enter the US.

When they sued the firm in the US in 2007, Curacao Drydock tried to have the case heard in Curacao but failed. It abandoned its defence and lost the suit by default.

Miami federal district judge James King awarded the trio US$50 million as compensation and US$30 million as punitive damages in 2008, in a default judgment.

The US judge noted that they had suffered a harrowing experience, "in effect serving a hard-labour prison sentence with no end in a foreign land".

Judge King added that Curacao Drydock conspired with Cuba to force its citizens to travel and work there.

In Singapore, the three victims, through their lawyer, Mr Sim Chong, sought to enforce the US$50 million judgment awarded for compensation and not the additional US$30 million in punitive damages. The latter is not recognised here, as argued by defence lawyer Syn Kok Kay.

It is understood that the three men, now based in Florida, have some way to go in their efforts to recover all the sums due to them.

Last December, through a court order they garnished US$82,618 owed by KGJ Cement (Singapore) to Curacao Drydock, which KGJ handed to their lawyer.

According to a US report earlier this month, a Texas district court had late last year ordered US$2.6 million garnished from Liberia-based Formusa Brick Marine Corp, which owed the debt to Curacao Drydock.

The issue is the subject of appeal.

This article was first published on May 26, 2015.
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