Leisure Clothing workers preferred to obtain fake documents and flee Malta rather than report the company's abuse to the police, a court heard today.
Speaking with the aid of a translator, Vietnamese worker Thi Thu Tran told the court she had been threatened to keep her mouth shut regarding the appalling conditions at the factory. She said that, additionally, she did not speak English and did not know anything about the laws of Malta.
Ms Tran was testifying against the two Chinese men who run the Leisure Clothing factory in Bulebel.
Bin Han, 46, from San Gwann and Jia Liu, 31, from Birzebbuga, stand charged with human trafficking and the exploitation of Chinese and Vietnamese people working for their company.
Mr Bin, who has Maltese nationality, is the company's managing director while Mr Liu is the marketing director. He is Chinese but has been living in Malta for four years.
They are also charged with misappropriating the employees' wages, failing to pay the employees their wages, overtime and allowances and failing to comply with employment conditions.
Ms Tran was one of three Vietnamese workers who had been arrested attempting to board the catamaran to Sicily with false Italian papers in July 2014. The workers had spilled the beans on the abuse upon their arrest.
Leading the cross-examination, lawyer Edward Gatt posited that Ms Tran and the other two workers wished to use Malta as a stepping stone to go to Germany and that she had brought the fake documents along with her from Vietnam.
Ms Tran denied this, saying that she came to Malta with one purpose - to work and to send money back to her family in Vietnam.
"I had no intention of going to another country. But the reality was very different from what I had been told (by the Vietnamese agent). I couldn't handle it any longer so I had to leave. When I was sick, I was not allowed to see the doctor right away. Upon coming here, my passport was sequestered by the company.
"We worked hard and we only received €150 every two months."
Asked how she spent her free time, Ms Tran replied: "shopping and going out with friends".
Dr Gatt pressed her on the destination she wished to travel to when she attempted to buy a catamaran ticket using fake documents.
Ms Tran insisted she had not thought about where she was heading and that she was only focused on purchasing a ticket.
"You told us you had initially signed the contract because you were afraid of losing the deposit you had paid the agent in Vietnam. Weren't you afraid of losing that money when you tried to escape from Malta?" Dr Gatt questioned, referring to the 70 million Vietnamese dong (€2,817) which Ms Tran said she had forked out.
The witness replied that, upon the third month of her arrival in Malta, the agent had partially repaid her family some of the money.
"Weren't you afraid of losing the rest?" Dr Gatt pressed on.
"We thought we would lose the money when we decided to leave the company," she replied.
Dr Gatt told Magistrate Ian Farrugia that the workers were accusing his clients of human trafficking in collaboration with a Vietnamese agent.
Asked whether she or her family had reported the agent to Vietnamese authorities, Ms Tran said that she was initially afraid to inform her mother of what she was facing as she did not want to worry her.
"But after all this, you had no trouble reporting my clients. Did you report the agent to Vietnamese police?" Dr Gatt questioned.
Ms Tran said the agent had told her family to tell her she should accept the salary and return to Vietnam. If she complained, the agency would report her to the Vietnamese labour department and she would be fined.
Asked from where she had obtained the false documents to leave Malta, Ms Tran said that it was from "a white person" but failed to give an identity.
Questioned on how she met him, she replied that she was a taking a walk outside the company where he approached her and introduced himself. No one suggested him to her, she insisted.
"So you want us to believe that you just bumped into this man and started conversing with him to buy false documents? You were so afraid to speak to the police but had no problem speaking to a man you don't know," Dr Gatt remarked.
Ms Tran replied that she did not reveal any details about the company but that they merely spoke about obtaining the fake documents.
The case continues.
Police Inspector Joseph Busuttil is leading the prosecution. Lawyers Karl Briffa, Katrine Camilleri and Michael Camilleri are appearing parte civile for the workers while Edward Gatt and Pio Valletta are defence counsel to the company directors.
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