Slave-labour victims seek to seize firm's assets in S'pore

PHOTO: Slave-labour victims seek to seize firm's assets in S'pore

THREE Cuban men who won a US$80million (S$101 million) claim against a dry dock company which forced them into 15 years of slave labour are seeking to seize any assets it may hold in Singapore.

Mr Alberto Licea, Mr Fernando Henandez and Mr Luis Toledo, now in their 40s, were made to work 16-hour shifts, carrying out demanding and dangerous tasks on ships and oil platforms for up to 45 days straight.

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

They and others were forced to travel and work there by the Cuban government as part of a scheme to pay off the country's debts.

However, the trio escaped and made their way to Colombia in early 2005 before being given public benefit parole to enter the United States.

When they sued the company 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. None of this has been paid.

They now argue, in court papers filed here, that vessels owned by Singapore-registered companies may owe Curacao Drydock money after using its shipyard services.

"If we obtain judgment against Curacao, we can then garnish any monies owed by the Singapore companies to (Curacao)," added the Florida-based trio, who are represented by lawyer Sim Chong.

They are seeking in Singapore's High Court to enforce only the US$50 million (S$63 million) compensation component of the US judgment award. A High Court pre-trial conference was held on Wednesday.

Mr Licea filed the affidavit on behalf of all three to explain their case.

In giving the award, Judge King had said the Curacao Drydock Company is "one of the largest drydock companies in the Western Hemisphere, with tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues".

"Given that (Curacao's) customers were major cruise lines, oil and shipping companies, it is safe to say that (Curacao) profited greatly from the plaintiffs' forced labour. Those profits should be disgorged.Forced labour is a brutal offence condemned by the civilised world."

He said the judgment will make other companies "think twice" about making similar labour pacts with the Cuban government.

Judge King said Curacao's actions thwarted official US policy towards Cuba by allowing the Cuban government access to the US market. Curacao had even put the nephew of former president Fidel Castro on its payroll as production manager, "leaving no doubt it was employing and making its agent, the coercive Castro regime", he added.

A further High Court hearing is due next month.

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