Alum’s Victory Advances Fight Against Human Trafficking and Abusive Labor Practices

Posted Thu, 02/08/2018 - 16:20

Yenny Teng-Lee ’13, principal at The Law Office of Yenny Teng-Lee, recently represented two Indonesian men in a case that yielded precedent-setting policies for informing workers of their rights under U.S. law. The plaintiffs settled their claims against an American fishing boat captain whom they allege subjected them to forced labor and human trafficking.

In addition to confidential financial terms, the ship’s owner also agreed to a code of conduct and to inform future seamen of their rights under U.S. law, setting the stage for improved business practices across the U.S. commercial fishing industry. The lawsuit, filed in September 2016, was the first such litigation brought under the U.S. Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act and helps to lay the groundwork for minimum labor standards in the commercial fishing industry.

Teng-Lee’s clients say they were offered good jobs and good wages on a fishing boat, but were instead taken to sea, forced onto another ship against their will, and subjected to forced labor in hazardous conditions at less than the promised pay. The ship’s owner was also alleged to have subjected the men to verbal abuse and denied necessary medical treatment. The two men escaped the ship when it docked in San Francisco.

“I hope the critical victory we secured inspires Indonesians and others in this country who have been subjected to gross injustices to take a stand and seek help,” said Teng-Lee, who partnered with Legal Aid at Work and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll on the case. “I feel truly humbled by the victory in this human trafficking case. The legal team is only a few of many people who have made this victory possible.”

Teng-Lee said her time at USF taught her an important first set of legal skills — oral arguments, concise and clear writing, and research — and gave her opportunities to put softer skills, like networking, into practice during externships and volunteering. Her professors, including Richard Sakai, Susan Freiwald, Peter Honigsberg, and Bill Ong Hing, “enforced the mindset that the purpose of practicing law is to help people. Without this mindset, I might’ve not invested myself in my clients’ need for justice as much as I did,” she said.