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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."