Rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand are challenging a ruling by a California federal district court that dismissed their case against the Thai and U.S. companies that benefited from their labor.

A coalition of human rights groups, led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of seven workers as their case goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The workers had brought their suit based in part under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.

The December ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California interpreted the TVPRA in a way that essentially ignored the “knowingly benefit” standard and instead required evidence that the U.S.-based companies actually participated in a venture to traffic the Cambodian workers into Thailand, according to Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.

The supporting brief argues, in part, that the companies knew or should have known of the widespread use of trafficked labor in the seafood sector in Thailand. Since 2008, numerous reports have exposed the trafficking of workers into Thailand to work in the shrimp industry. It would have been virtually impossible for enterprises involved in the shrimp industry not to have known of the extremely high risk of trafficking.

In 2016 alone, 16 million people were victims of forced labor by private enterprises, according to International Labor Organization estimates. This illegal activity generates $51 billion in profits.

Following the December court ruling (Keo Ratha, et al. v. Phatthana Seafoods Co. Ltd., et al.), Keo Ratha, one of the seven men filing the suit, told Voice of America Khmer that he deeply regretted the district court’s decision.

“I’m disappointed because we thought that the U.S. court would find justice for us,” he said. “But when the court dismissed our complaint I was speechless. This is their law.”

Joining the Solidarity Center in its brief are the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Earthrights International, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group,  the International Labor Rights Forum and the Worker Rights Consortium.

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