Third magistrate begins hearing Leisure Clothing case

The criminal case against Han Bin and Jia Liu has been plagued by delays.

The compilation of evidence against the directors of Chinese state-owned textile factory Leisure Clothing has resumed today after a two-month hiatus, with one of the textile factory's former employees testifying to being forced to apologise for being sick and made to foot the company doctor's bill.

The criminal case against Han Bin and Jia Liu, who are accused of trafficking in persons, abuse of authority, misappropriation, failing to comply with recognised conditions of employment and failing to pay wages, bonus and overtime for nine Vietnamese workers, has been plagued by delays.

In the 16 months since their arraignment, the presiding magistrate retired, one prosecuting police inspector resigned from the force and a new magistrate recused herself due to her having assisted the prosecution before her appointment. In a welcome nod to practicality, Magistrate Ian Farrugia dispensed with the need for a translator from Maltese to English in today’s sitting, ordering the case continue be heard in English.

12 months have passed since a court had decreed that there was sufficient evidence to indict Mr. Han, 46 from San Gwann and his marketing director Jia Liu, 31, from Birzebbugia on charges of human trafficking and imposing illegal working conditions.

The case had come to light in October 2014 after several of the Bulebel factory's Vietnamese employees had been arrested while attempting to leave the island with false Italian identity documents. The workers had told the police that they had not been paid the agreed wages and that their passports had been withheld by the company.

A string of Vietnamese employees had testified as to how they would receive €200-€300 monthly – half the amount they had been promised – for working 12 hours a day, seven days a week and had their passports confiscated by the company on their arrival.

But compilation proceedings had been stalled by the retirement of presiding Magistrate Carol Peralta, which required the outgoing magistrate’s pending caseload to be redistributed. The case eventually landed the lap of newly-appointed magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech, in December. However, due to her former role as deputy Attorney General, Magistrate Frendo Dimech had chosen to recuse herself in this case.

This morning, magistrate Ian Farrugia exempted the witnesses who had already testified from having to testify again, however allowing the defence to reserve the right to summon any of these witnesses for re-examination, if required.

28-year-old Tran Thi Thu, from Vietnam told the court this morning that she had been in Malta for two and a half years, having come here to work for Leisure Clothing. She had been recruited through the Vihatico agency in Vietnam, she said, telling the court how she had been asked to sign two different contracts, one in Chinese and another in Vietnamese and Chinese, after having paid a considerable agency fee. These were intended to ensure that she received the benefits and living conditions promised in Malta, the agency had explained.

The witness said she had been asked to sign the last contract just 30 minutes before boarding her flight to Malta. She had asked why and was told that it was there to correct mistakes in the original. Tran was required to pay another large sum for this contract, she said.

Asked why she had signed the documents, after noticing differences, she said she would have lost the money she had paid before, which at that point had reached 70million Vietnamese dong (€2825) - equivalent approximately two and a half year’s wages in Vietnam, the witness said.

In Malta, she claimed to have not been allowed to take time off, in spite of being so sick she was unable to walk. “I had to hide myself, lying down under the table.”

That day she had worked from 7am to 11am, when someone from the company finally brought her a doctor, whose €22 bill she had to pay. After that she was unable to work for two days and had been asked to apologise for her absence. She was supposed to give her managers two days notice before taking sick leave, she said.

Replying to a question from lawyer Katrine Camilleri, she said she had only received €150 for two months’ work and this amount was not reflected on her payslip.

She had not received the rest of the money due to her, the witness said. “On Christmas, I received €10. My family did not receive the rest of the money.”

She had inquired with her employer about this and was told that the company would hold on to her pay until she had earned €2,000, after which it would be paid regularly. The €2,000 would be kept, together with her passport, as a form of guarantee that she would not abscond, the court had been told.

The court accepted a request by the defence to modify the accused’ bail conditions, reducing the frequency that they must sign a bail book from four times a week to once a week.

Police Inspector Joseph Busuttil is leading the prosecution. Lawyers Karl Briffa, Katrine Camilleri and Michael Camilleri appeared parte civile for the workers. Lawyers Edward Gatt and Pio Valletta are defence counsel to the company directors.