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Slave Wages 

Those forced to labor for Japan in World War II are now suing in California courts

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
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Mel Gutierrez's pastel-colored Bayview home is airy and well-kept, comfortably decorated with designer furniture and plush cream carpet. A retired City Hall security guard, Gutierrez labored long to reach the point where he can spend most of his time fishing and relaxing.

Coming from a long line of farmers in the Philippines, he grew up learning to cultivate corn and rice in a rural barrio in Batangas City. And when he was 8, he was forced to work for more than two years in a labor camp, after Japan took over the Philippines in World War II.

During the war, Japanese forced labor camps popped up all over the Philippines and Asia. American prisoners of war, and civilians from conquered countries, were sometimes forced at bayonet point to perform long hours of physical labor. Though only a child when the Japanese came to Batangas City, Gutierrez spent up to 12 hours a day digging tunnels -- unwillingly and unpaid.

Though Gutierrez lives comfortably now, he remembers the hardship he and his parents suffered. "There are wounds that were inflicted on my family that will never be erased from my mind," Gutierrez says. For nearly 60 years, Gutierrez and others like him were prevented from suing the Japanese government over their enslavement by the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.

But now, Gutierrez is one of nearly 20 Bay Area Filipinos -- and more than 100 people worldwide -- who have joined in a class-action lawsuit filed against some of Japan's largest companies, seeking payment for the piece of his childhood that was stolen from him.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles but likely to be moved soon to federal court in San Francisco, invokes a new -- and legally untested -- California law enacted in July 1999, which allows those forced into labor to sue the Japanese corporations that benefited from their work.

The legally controversial statute, pushed by Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden of Los Angeles, was originally intended to help Holocaust survivors file claims against European corporations that worked with the Nazis. But the legislation, which was backed by two-thirds of the state Legislature, applies to all slave labor victims. And increasingly, various groups have banded together to file class-action suits against Japanese companies that used forced labor on construction contracts with the Japanese army.

"I know the work [I did was] not just for the Japanese army," Gutierrez explains. "We worked also for the private construction companies who were under contract with the Japanese army to build this and transport that. We were unpaid employees for private companies for the benefit of the Japanese army." He and other litigants say that there were often civilian Japanese overseeing their work.

More than 20 lawsuits have already been filed in courthouses across the state against Japanese corporations, on behalf of various groups -- Koreans, Chinese, and U.S. POWs to name a few -- who claim they were abused. The amount of damages sought has not been spelled out, but could reach into the billions of dollars.

But because the cases involve international entities, and could arguably wade into U.S. foreign policy territory, attorneys for the Japanese corporations have asked that the cases be moved from state courts to the federal District Court in San Francisco; seven such cases are in the process of being sent to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker. The Filipino class-action case is also expected to move to the San Francisco federal court soon, and all the suits will most likely be combined in some fashion.

Attorneys representing the Japanese companies, which include Mitsubishi Corp. and Nippon Steel U.S.A. Inc., argue that the suits should be thrown out, saying they are barred by the San Francisco Peace Treaty and further pre-empted by U.S. law. The lawyers also question whether the California law illegally interferes with U.S. foreign policy.

"That piece of legislation that says anyone can sue everyone -- that's Hayden's gift to us all," says Robert Sacks, a Los Angeles attorney who is representing Nippon Steel. "And American POWs, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese have all jumped on the bandwagon. But if you think about it logically, what business does the state of California have for providing a claim for people living in say, Korea, to bring a complaint against the Japanese companies? It has nothing to do with the state of California.

"I don't think any of them have a strong case on the law," Sacks continues. "And I'm not addressing the plaintiffs' substantive allegations of treatment in the war. We haven't looked at that yet."

But Daniel Slatopolsky, the attorney in Gutierrez's class action, contends that the plaintiffs have every right to file in California courts. "These businesses have had plants in California for 150 years, since before the war," says Slatopolsky, a New York lawyer who is handling the case with two other attorneys. "They have ties to California. They do millions of dollars of business in California. If they have used slave labor against the law, and they do business in California, then the reality is that you can go against these companies in California courts."

Slatopolsky believes other laws -- including federal statutes, the Unfair Competition Clause of California, and international law -- all justify the cases against Japanese companies.

New York attorney Deborah Sturman, who helped draft Hayden's bill, says arguments that the California legislation interferes with U.S. foreign policy are "absurd." "How does a suit against a corporation by an individual who was enslaved, who is suing to get damages -- how could that possibly affect foreign policy? In terms of this law being pre-empted by federal law, well, what other law is there? There has never been a remedy for this."

But the lawsuits will face tough scrutiny in the courts, says UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, a federal and Supreme Court specialist. "We must look at whether there is an articulated federal [foreign] policy on this," Yoo says. "But on the other side, traditionally, states have had primary control over cause of action for its citizens. I wouldn't want to predict the outcome, but my instinct is that the federal courts will probably strike it down."

Slatopolsky disagrees. And, in order to ensure the "integrity of the case," he says he has enlisted the help of a University of Manila professor to screen plaintiffs like Gutierrez and confirm that they were, in fact, forced into slave labor during the war.

During the Japanese occupation, Gutierrez says, all the able-bodied men in his family's barrio were forced to work at breakneck speed building a system of underground tunnels for the Japanese, who were anticipating the invasion of American troops.

Gutierrez, his father, and hundreds of others dug tunnels about 8 feet high and wider than a man's outstretched arms under the strategically located Soro Soro Hill. They worked in biweekly shifts for over 12 hours a day, seven days a week, between about 1942 and 1944. They were given a single noontime break every day, he says, when they were allowed to eat the food that they provided from their own farms. The weeks when they were not working directly for the Japanese army, they were expected to continue farming crops, which they were forced to give to the Japanese.

The class-action suit Gutierrez has joined was first filed in the name of 74-year-old Perfecto Llanza of New Jersey. In the lawsuit, Llanza says he also endured "relentless physical labor" and "systematic torture" such as beatings, and saw workers decapitated for being too slow. Gutierrez says that in his labor camp, some people died working on the tunnels, and others were hit on the head with a stick for not working fast enough.

Lucio Dimaano, a barely wrinkled 79-year-old Filipino, now lives six blocks away from Gutierrez in the Bayview. They used to be neighbors in Batangas City. Dimaano says he also was forced to work on the tunnels under Soro Soro Hill.

Dimaano plans to join the class-action suit filed by Slatopolsky, though he originally came to the United States in 1988 to join the crusade for war veteran benefits for Filipino soldiers who fought alongside Americans in World War II. He says he hopes that he will be able to go back to his barrio to tell them about this class-action lawsuit.

"I want the lawsuit because we were not compensated," Dimaano says. "Because [the Japanese] destroyed everything, even our houses. If they had no firewood, then they destroy your house so they can cook."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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