Workers at a factory in American Samoa that made apparel for the J. C. Penney Company and other retailers were often beaten and were provided food so inadequate that some were "walking skeletons," a Labor Department investigation has found.
The plant, which was closed in January, belonged to Daewoosa, a small Korean-owed clothing manufacturer. The inquiry found an extraordinary variety of abuses there, ranging from frequent violation of the Samoan minimum wage to the beating of workers who returned to the factory compound after evening curfew.
The Labor Department's report, dated Dec. 14, was obtained by The New York Times from an anti-sweatshop activist working to expose poor conditions at overseas factories and to pressure retailers to improve conditions at plants that turn out goods for them.
The Daewoosa plant in American Samoa, a Pacific territory of the United States where most federal labor standards are supposed to apply, had about 300 workers, most of them women brought from their native Vietnam.
The factory, the report noted, was at one point cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for an extremely rare violation: withholding food from workers.
"The diet, consisting primarily of a watery broth of rice and cabbage, is of a type and quantity that may lead to malnutrition." the report said. "Management admits that they withhold meals from employees as a form of punishment when workers complain about food."
In 1999, the report said, three workers sought refuge at a Christian missionary center after not being fed for two days.
One federal investigator likened the factory compound to a prison, saying workers had lived 36 to a room, had received bare-bones meals, had not been free to come and go and had often been forbidden to have visitors. They often slept two to a 36-inch-wide bed.
Women employed there, the report added, accused managers of routinely entering their barracks to watch them shower and dress.
"This was one of the worst sweatshop cases I've seen in the 15 years I've been investigating sweatshops," said Charles Kernaghan, president of the National Labor Committee, a labor rights group based in New York.
Tim Lyons, a spokesman for J. C. Penney, said that in December, immediately after learning about problems at the factory, Penney executives stopped selling apparel obtained from it and canceled contracts with a supplier that was getting goods there. Mr. Lyons said the supplier had dealt with the plant without making sure that Daewoosa met Penney labor standards.
"We didn't know they were planning to manufacture the goods there," Mr. Lyons said. "We have a strict policy on factory inspection and certification. The supplier did not follow that policy."
In a trial taking place in Samoa this week, workers from the factory are suing Daewoosa for hundreds of thousands of dollars, accusing it of nonpayment of wages and of violating a contractual promise to provide them free room and board. The workers earned about $400 a month but were often forced to pay $150 to $200 a month for food and rent, bringing net pay to just over $1 an hour.
Marie Lafeule, a lawyer representing Daewoosa, said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on either the litigation or the Labor Department's report before the trial was over.
Three weeks ago a judge in American Samoa placed the factory in receivership after it failed to pay $600,000 in back wages and penalties that had been ordered by the Labor Department as a result of the investigation. The department found that the factory had sometimes not paid workers for months at a time and had often paid them less than Samoa's $2.60-an-hour minimum wage.
Congressional investigators are looking into whether Daewoosa and several travel companies kept the workers in debt bondage and violated a federal law that bars trafficking in humans. With many deductions taken from their pay, some workers made little headway in repaying the $2,000 to $7,000 that many had borrowed to acquire their jobs and to fly from Vietnam to Samoa.
Peter Le, an engineer in North Carolina who went to American Samoa last fall to do charity work, said he was appalled by what he heard from the Daewoosa workers. Every day, he said, they were fed the same thing: some rice and watery chicken broth with a bit of cabbage thrown in.
"Some of them were really very, very skinny," said Mr. Le, who speaks fluent Vietnamese and was a translator for federal investigators. "The women had to be back by the 10 p.m. curfew, or else they got hit, slapped or kicked by the guards."
Vietnamese workers maintained that the Samoan police were reluctant to investigate their complaints of being beaten by the factory's guards and managers, who were most often native Samoans.
Among the instances of violence cited by the department's investigators was one last November in which a worker lost an eye, apparently having been beaten with a pipe.
"Investigators have documented numerous incidents that indicate a trend of institutionalized workplace violence and corporal punishment by the owner," the report said.
With the factory closed when it was put in receivership, more than 200 Vietnamese workers appear to be stranded and unable to repay the money they borrowed to get their jobs and fly to Samoa.
Charles Alailima, a lawyer for Morgan Cooper, an apparel maker based in New York, said that company was negotiating to buy the factory, reopen it and put the Vietnamese back to work.
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