Cuban workers allege they were virtual slaves in Curacao

Each Cuban worker got two pairs of overalls, a set of sturdy boots, a helmet and food commensurate with how hard he worked.

Their labor fixing up American cruise ships at a Curacao dry dock was valued at $6.90 an hour. But the 108 Cuban shipyard hands who worked double shifts in a joint venture between the Cuban government and the Curacao Dry Dock Company did not get to spend their wages. Their earnings were applied to the Cuban government's debt with the company, court records show.

Documents reviewed Wednesday by The Miami Herald in an ongoing 2006 lawsuit filed in Miami by the workers offer a rare glimpse at employment terms normally kept secret between the Cuban government and the firms with which it does business. The documents appear to offer proof that the government's joint ventures abroad sometimes involve unpaid labor.

Instead of a salary, the men got money for food and 400 Cuban pesos a month -- about $18 at the current exchange rate.

Three former dry-dock workers eventually escaped what their attorneys call a ''forced labor camp'' in Willemstad, Curacao, and filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Miami, alleging the Cuban government offered them up as slave labor to pay off its debts.

Alberto Justo Rodríguez, Fernando Alonso Hernández and Luis Alberto Casanova Toledo -- who now live in the Tampa Bay area -- sued the Curacao Dry Dock Company, saying it forced them to work against their will while Cuban agents kept an eye on their every move.

Their boss at the docks: Fidel Castro's nephew.

In court papers, the Curacao Dry Dock Company says allegations it forced employees to work 112 hours a week in substandard conditions are untrue. In a sweeping denial of wrongdoing, the company acknowledged it did not pay the Cubans and that managers held the workers' passports ``for safekeeping.''

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