Sunday, November 23, 2008

US case highlights Cuban 'slaves' in Curaçao

US case highlights Cuban 'slaves' in Curaçao
A federal judge in Miami last month ordered a shipping firm to pay $80
million for conspiring with Cuba to abuse workers.
By Colin Woodard | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the November 18, 2008 edition

Willemstad, Netherlands Antilles - Olivia Ocampo well remembers the
night the two Cuban workers came to her house in January 2005.

Exhausted and afraid, they had escaped from the premises of the nearby
Curaçao Drydock Company, where they said they and some 100 other Cubans
had been forced to work 112 hours a week fixing ships for three cents an

Ms. Ocampo approached the police and government authorities in
Willemstad, the capital of the Netherlands Antilles, a Dutch dependency
in the southern Caribbean, but "they just wanted to push all the trash
under the carpet and say that everything is fine," she said.

But last month, a federal judge in Miami ordered the shipyard to pay the
workers and one of their colleagues a total of $80 million in damages,
after finding it had conspired with the government of Cuba to force them
into what was, in effect, slave labor.

The case has focused a spotlight on the shadowy corners of the global
economy, where capital moves freely across borders and laborers are
sometimes forced to follow in bondage. While most cases involve abuses
committed in developing nations with poor human rights records, this
took place within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, home to the
International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

"These types of violations are not out of the ordinary for the Cuban
government," says Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group in Washington,
which helped the workers bring their suit. "What's surprising is that it
happened in a dependency of the Netherlands, a country known for its
interest in human rights."

The three men testified that they had been sent to Curaçao to work off
Cuba's multimillion-dollar debt to the Curaçao Drydock Company, a
private company whose largest shareholder is the government of the
Netherlands Antilles. Their passports were seized at the airport and
they were rarely allowed to leave the shipyard complex, and only in
groups with a minder. They typically worked 15 days in a row and when
off-duty had to watch Fidel Castro's videotaped speeches.

Working conditions were perilous, they testified. One of the men,
Fernando Alonso, burned his hand while welding steel without proper
safety gear. Another, Alberto Rodriguez-Licea, broke his foot and ankle
when a rope he was dangling from snapped. The third, Luis Casanova, was
ordered to work in water and says he was shocked so severely that
electricity shot from his tongue.

"They faced the worst choice you can imagine: to continue being slaves
not knowing if they would live or die because they were being treated so
badly or to try to escape, knowing that even if they were successful it
would be horrific for their families in Cuba," says Miami-based attorney
Seth Miles, who represented the men. "Their kids have been kicked out of
school, their relatives have lost their jobs, and neighborhood gangs
harass their families."

Mr. Castro's nephew, Manuel Bequer, was a senior manager of the shipyard
at the time. He is still listed as the production manager on the
company's website.

The company has denied many of the allegations, though they admitted
that the Cuban workers' passports were seized and that their unpaid
wages were deducted from the debt Havana owed the company. After failing
to get the case thrown out on technical grounds, the firm fired their
attorneys and abandoned the case.

Reached by telephone on Oct. 20 and informed of the judge's ruling,
company spokesman Lennox Rhodes said to "call in an hour" for comment.
He did not subsequently answer his telephone or respond to frequent
phone and e-mail messages.

The company has also refused to respond to local media requests,
according to Mike Willemse, editor of the Antilliaans Dagblad newspaper.
"We understand that they will in no way pay the [damages] because they
don't have it," he said. "It's simply not there."

A spokesperson for the Netherlands Ministry of Kingdom Affairs, Mireille
Beentjes, said her government "has been concerned about the labor
circumstances" at the shipyard and had "on several occasions expressed
these concerns" to the Netherlands Antilles government.

Mr. Alonso and Mr. Casanova eventually received visas to seek justice in
US courts. All three escapees now live in Tampa, Fla.

Theirs is one of dozens of human rights cases tried in recent years
under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to sue
foreign officials and companies in US courts for serious violations of
international law.

If the Curaçao Drydock Company ignores the judgment, they will find it
hard to do business with US firms or the Miami-based cruise ship lines,
Mr. Miles says. "Good corporate citizens generally don't do business
with bad actors," he says. "They would not want to be associated with a
company that not only employs slave labor, but ignores US court judgments."

No comments: