The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a complaint in Brooklyn federal court against a Queens family for human trafficking and labor violations.
Oak-Jin Oh, 60, a Korean citizen, labored as a domestic worker for Soo Bok Choi, and members of his family, including Young Il Choi, Young Jin Choi, Young Mi Choi and Ki Soon Lee. In court papers, Oh charges them with bringing her to the United States illegally and under false pretenses, not paying her and forcing her to live in deplorable conditions for 12 years.
Soo Bok Choi was called a prominent Buddhist monk in the complaint and Oh said she was also forced to clean the Mitasa Temple, which was in the Choi’s Little Neck home until 2001.
The family also lived in other locations over the years, including Elmhurst, Flushing, Bayside and Whitestone. Ivy Suriyopas, the AALDEF staff attorney, said on Monday that the Chois have various addresses in Queens now. It is believed Soo Bok Choi lives in Flushing.
“She was isolated and didn’t know her rights,” Suriyopas said. “It is deplorable that a worker went without pay for 12 years.”
According to the complaint, Oh was introduced to the Choi family in 1998 through a South Korean employment agency. She agreed to come to the United States to work for the family and receive a monthly wage of about $1,200.
The elder Choi flew with Oh to Toronto and then she was smuggled across the border into New York at night in a small boat, the lawsuit says. Oh claims she never had a day off, usually worked 14-hour days and was forced to sleep on blankets in the basement.
She received no payment for her cooking and cleaning and was denied medical care when she was ill.
The lawsuit also claims that the family intimidated Oh, took her passport and limited her contact with outsiders. She never left the house alone and was always accompanied by a family member.
Oh also said that the elder Choi warned her he could easily pay to have someone kill her and threatened to report her to immigration officials and have her deported.
“The defendants were able to intimidate her, isolate her, and lie to her about the laws in the United States and her rights for so long,” Suriyopas said. “Unfortunately, labor trafficking continues to exist in the shadows, but this immigrant worker has stepped forward to assert her rights and expose her abusive working conditions.”
The AALDEF issued a statement from Oh that she gave through an interpreter: “This man calls himself a monk, but to me, he is a criminal,” she said. “It’s not right to look down on the weak and cause them damage just because you have power and status.”
She was finally able to escape last year through the help of a friend of the Choi family, who took pity on her, according to Suriyopas.
Ann Jawin, chairwoman and founder of the Center for the Women of New York, was horrified to learn of the human trafficking case. Her group, now headquartered in Kew Gardens, has been fighting sex trafficking for two years, a crime related to Oh’s situation.
“This is a problem that has been hidden for years and is widespread,” Jawin said. “It has not been discussed openly and must be brought out.”
She said her organization is working with other groups to focus on the issue and told the public to be alert. “The problem is all around us. People have to keep their eyes open and report what they see,” Jawin added.
Oh seeks compensatory and punitive damages for involuntary servitude, forced labor, human trafficking, racketeering and fraud labor law violations. Suriyopas said no trial date has been set and that it could be a lengthy process because so many people are involved.