A group of 15 Vietnamese citizens were among 26 Asian sailors saved from being used as slave labor on two fishing boats off San Jose in Costa Rica on April 11.
San Jose officials said the victims were forced to work 20 hours a day, and usually starved and beaten. The men said they were promised US$250 a month in the contracts they signed, including $20 for them and the rest sent to their families, but they had received nothing.
The police had been inspecting the boats for the past four months after nine Vietnamese crewmen escaped from the boats, swam ashore and told their stories.
"They were in completely unsanitary, inhumane, overcrowded [conditions]," Jorge Rojas Vargas, director of Costa Rica Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ), was quoted by local newspaper La Nacion as saying on April 12.
Mario Zamora, director of Costa Rica migration agency, said: "This is modern slavery."
But Nguyen Tri Dung, deputy general director of Vinamotor Vietnam that sent at least five of the men on board via Taiwanese brokerage firm Shang ji, denied the slavery conditions or unpaid labor.
Dung said the men's families have received their money as of February. He said the Foreign Ministry has ordered Vietnamese embassies near Costa Rica to step in and investigate the case.
Hanoi-based Vinamotor was found to have sent Nguyen Van Huong, Nguyen Van Thang and Nguyen Van Dung from the central province of Quang Binh, as well as Pham Quang Manh and Nguyen Tien Tao [nativity unknown] on the boat. They left Vietnam on February 4 last year on the vessel belonging to Taiwanese company Wang Jia Men.
Thang's family said they had received a total of VND30.6 million ($1,610) as of the end of 2009, and no money so far this year.
The families of Huong, Thang and Dung said they had no information of the men since September last year, and had not been informed that their boat had been seized.
Nguyen Thi Hoa, Thang's mother, said "We're all poor and couldn't afford a boat for our children so we had to let them go and hope they can earn something. I didn't hear from them for months and I just thought they were doing well."
Nguyen Van Nam, 26, introduced by Vinamotor to a Taiwanese boat with seven other Vietnamese crew members, said he was forced to work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next day, so he broke the contract to flee home. Vinamotor had promised to pay him $180 a month.
"The first trip lasted seven months and we were forced to work through every night. The boss scolded us in Taiwanese that we didn't understand and beat us every time we were slow or made some mistakes," Nam said.
Dang Van Tung, a resident of the central region who returned home in February after three years on a Taiwanese boat, said there is "No place in the world where people are exploited as much as on Taiwan's boats."
Tung said he had to stand for more than 18 hours a day and each fishing trip lasted around 19 months. During the fishing time, he would have no sleep for days, the 20-year-old said.
"As soon as you fell asleep you would be slapped on the face and caned brutally."
Tung said he was fed twice a day, not a full meal, plus a supper of two dumplings without any stuffing.
Further investigations have been launched in the latest case in which 15 Vietnamese citizens were saved.
Costa Rican authorities suspect it is a human trafficking case, the third most lucrative black market business after drug and arms trafficking. The trade generates some $9.5 billion a year globally, according to the United Nations.