Suburban sweatshop reveals region's labor underground



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Posted on November 17, 2010 at 11:35 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 18 at 6:39 PM

BURIEN, Wash. -- It is just a house in Burien, south of Seattle.

But when you walk through the garage door you might feel like you have been transported back in time, or to a third world country.
That is because the garage is more like a factory than a home and people who have worked there describe sweatshop conditions. 
The business is called Haos Sewing. 28-year-old Huong Duong started working there after she came to the Seattle-area from Vietnam last year.
"Anything I do wrong they would yell at me, curse at me, treat me like an animal," Duong says of the business owners.
Workers quietly come in early and leave late in the evening.  Even neighbors would not know what is going on inside the tidy house on SW 122nd Street. 
Huong says she was paid about $2.50 an hour “with the rule that I had to work Monday through Thursday 10 hours and Friday through Sunday 12 hours."
The KING 5 Investigators walked up at a rare moment when the garage door was open. Sure enough, there were nearly 20 sewing machines inside and a couple of women at work.
Owners Hao and Tu Nguyen admitted they've been running the shop in their home for ten years. In an interview on his shop floor, Hao Nguyen insisted “I pay them eight, nine or ten (dollars an hour)”.
Nguyen pointed us to a license that shows he is registered to pay taxes -- but our check of records shows "Hao's sewing" -- as the business is called -- isn't properly registered with several state agencies. It is also violating city license,  zoning and workplace laws according to Burien officials. 
The State Department Labor and Industries, the Washington Employment Security Department and the City of Burien are all investigating Hao’s sewing after the KING 5 Investigators started raising questions about the shop.
The Nguyens also pay workers outside their shop.
For days we watched several women bring in goods that they sewed in their own homes.   The Nguyens pay cash per item.
We watched Sokaom Rouen deliver a load and we later tracked her down at home.
"For this one 80 cents, “ she says holding up a cloth book cover she was sewing for the Nguyens. Rouen says she can sew each book cover in about a half an hour and the Nguyens pay her 80 cents per cover. That means she is making less than $1.60 per hour for her work.
We found book covers produced by Haos Sewing selling online and at retail stores for $16 or more.
How did Huong Duong end up at Haos Sewing? She says she was forced to work at the shop by her abusive husband, who is a friend of the Nguyen family.
Alan Lai is a member of a Washington task force that targets human trafficking.
He says it's common to find family members exploiting their own flesh and blood.
"The culture's like ‘hey, you are a family member” Lai says.  “You're to serve me, you're to serve my brothers and sisters, you're to serve my parents"
Lai says victims of this form of slavery are hidden in plain sight all around us working for pennies in restaurants, brothels, farms or like Huong Duong -- in a back room she says she was only free to leave with the Nguyens’ or her husband's permission.
Last month, Duong called 9-1-1 when her husband was allegedly beating her.  She says the Nguyens fired her the next day. Duong has pressed charges against her husband and has filed for divorce. Her husband did not return calls from KING 5. However, in court document he denies that he struck or abused his wife.