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Photograph of Kil Soo Lee and compound

ANATOMY OF AN INTERNATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING CASE, PART 1
Kil Soo Lee and the Case of the Samoan Sweatshop

07/16/04

Want a specific reason why the FBI continues to develop its global reach, equipped with the analytic capabilities, linguistic skills, financial acumen, law enforcement partnerships, and worldwide offices needed to disable sophisticated international criminal and terrorist threats?

Then consider the case of Kil Soo Lee (shown in the above picture), convicted of enslaving more than 250 garment workers in his factory in American Samoa.

It all started in the late 1990s, when Lee crafted a ruthless business plan to mass produce clothes for top U.S. retailers.

Step 1: Lee built his factory on a remote island of American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory 2,300 miles south of Honolulu. That way, he could use the "Made In America" label on his clothes but not draw attention to his operation.

Step 2: He recruited more than 250 skilled garment workers from Vietnam and China, mostly young women, enticing them with promises of a steady job that could help support their children and families back home. To guarantee this new job in America, he demanded an exorbitant down payment of as much as $6,000 from each worker.

Step 3: When the employees arrived, he placed them on grueling schedules in horrid conditions and paid them next to nothing. Then, he kept the workers in line through threats, beatings, starvation, false arrests, sexual assaults, debt repayment schemes, deportation, and other tactics -- all enforced by security guards in a gated compound (one section is pictured above).

In time, though, the dark underbelly of this Samoan sweatshop came to light:

  • One employee, while returning from a visit of jailed co-workers, took an "SOS" note and threw it out of the window of the company car. The note was found and passed on to the Department of Labor (DOL). After investigating, DOL levied fines and ordered Lee to pay back wages. (Since Lee was strapped for cash, DOL wrote the checks, but Lee forced his workers to give him the money and he deported those who didn't.)
  • In November 2000, Lee ordered his guards to beat or kill any workers who weren't producing clothes fast enough. A mass attack ensued; one woman had her eye gouged out with a pipe. Word of the beatings reached law enforcement, and in February 2001, FBI Agents in Honolulu launched a massive investigation.

Read part two of the story, about what it took for the Bureau and its partners to make the case against Kil Soo Lee and to help the victims of his brutal scheme.