Chinese firms will pay $14 million back wages in Saipan case

Four Chinese construction firms will pay nearly $14 million in back wages and damages to thousands of Chinese workers for construction of a casino in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Investigators found the contractors paid employees less than what was required by law, according to a U.S. Department of Labor statement released Monday.

The settlement will affect more than 2,400 employees. The four firms were contracted by Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International for construction on Saipan.

U.S. officials have said workers entered on tourist visas and without proper visa authorization by using a visa waiver program that allows Chinese citizens to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands. They were also forced to incur debt of thousands of dollars for airfare and recruitment fees prior to their employment in Saipan, according to the settlement.

"These settlements ensure that thousands of workers will receive the wages they legally earned, while simultaneously sending a strong, clear message to other employers," said Bryan Jarrett, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Acting Administrator, in a statement.

The Chinese laborers worked 13 hours a day without weekends or holidays, and had their passports confiscated upon arrival in Saipan, said Li Qiang, the executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch, an advocacy group. Li communicated with the affected workers and liaised with U.S. officials to seek retribution for owed wages.

"More Chinese companies are expanding abroad, and in regions like the U.S. and Europe, hiring labor there can be expensive," Li said. "Firms will prefer bringing Chinese workers."

But oftentimes, the workers are lured with false promises such as high wages and even help in obtaining a green card — none of which materializes once they arrive. Higher fines and penalties levied by U.S. authorities will help combat these practices, Li said.

A handful of the workers remain in Saipan, though many have returned to China. Some have been waiting a year to be paid what they're owed.

"Nobody has told us how much money we will each receive, nobody has said when we will actually receive the money," Gong Benji, one of the Chinese workers in Saipan, said in a statement. "How can we return home and face the people who loaned us money to come here? We cannot simply tell the loan sharks that there is a press release."

More needs to be done to guard against such exploitation, said Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and research fellow at New York University who has followed the Saipan case. For example, the Department of Labor could insist that Imperial Pacific subject future contractors to third-party monitoring over their labor practices, he said. "Some of the Chinese workers had legal work visas but were still badly abused."

Imperial Pacific said in a statement released Tuesday in Hong Kong that it's pleased a settlement was reached.

Monday's settlements are part of a wider investigation into the company's casino and hotel project on the island.

Saipan island in the western Pacific is the seat of government of the Northern Mariana Islands.