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This Burmese Refugee's New Life in Colorado Ended in Death. Why?EXPAND
Jay Vollmar

This Burmese Refugee's New Life in Colorado Ended in Death. Why?

On the afternoon of March 23, Li Ling was well into her usual Friday routine. The 27-year-old mother of three — boys six, four and three — was in the kitchen of the family’s Aurora apartment, keeping one eye on her kids while she prepared a meal for her husband, who’d gotten up at three that morning for work. By 2:30 p.m., his dinner was ready; Li Ling knew that Naing Mana always had a big appetite after he got off the graveyard shift at the metal-manufacturing plant where he worked in Lakewood.

It was only after the food had been cooling on the counter for nearly an hour that Li Ling wondered if something was wrong. Naing Mana usually called if he was going to be late or had made other plans. Frowning, she dialed her husband’s cell phone. There was no answer. She made a second call around 4 p.m. Again, no answer.

Finally, at 4:30, a high-pitched ring tone signaled an incoming call. Li Ling hurriedly answered, expecting to hear Naing Mana’s voice.

But it was a friend of Naing Mana’s. “I heard that your husband was in an accident,” he said. “Do you know if he’s okay?”

The caller offered no other information. Li Ling was jarred: Had Naing Mana really been injured? After hanging up, she couldn’t repress the impulse to cry, though she hid her tears from their three boys.

Dusk was just about to fall when Li Ling finally heard rustling outside her front door. She raced to open it, and again found one of her husband’s friends rather than Naing Mana. The man was weeping.

“Please, tell me what happened!” Li Ling implored. “Has he broken something — his hands, his legs?”

The visitor didn’t answer, but instead suggested that she and the boys go with him to the home of Li Ling’s uncle. Once there, Li Ling finally got an answer to her question about the whereabouts of her husband.

“I’m sorry,” Li Ling’s uncle told her. “You cannot see him. And you will not see him again.”

At work that day, Naing Mana had leaned underneath a metal press to switch out a set of stamping dies when the machine turned on, squeezing his upper body between a pair of hydraulic plates. The 33-year-old had died instantly.

A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into Vforge, the manufacturing plant where Naing Mana worked, is under way. Some former workers claim that the company failed to offer proper training that its non-English-speaking employees could understand. But one refugee agency that continues to place workers at Vforge defends the company and suggests that it’s been targeted unfairly by federal investigators.

Speaking through a translator herself, family friend Thang Thung, who speaks both Daai Chin and English, Li Ling says she vividly recalls her husband voicing concerns for his safety right before the fatal accident. Eight months later, she’s still reeling. She had been so certain that her family had left danger behind when they left Burma.

Naing Mana, pictured here with his three sons, died on the job last March.EXPAND
Naing Mana, pictured here with his three sons, died on the job last March.
Courtesy of Li Ling

Li Ling and Naing Mana’s long journey to Colorado began in an extremely remote and mountainous region of Burma known as Chin State. Although the Southeast Asian nation — squeezed between Thailand, China and India — has an overall population of 53.5 million people, Chin State has fewer than 500,000 residents, spread between fifty or so tribes with their own customs and dialects. Li Ling and Naing Mana both grew up speaking Daai Chin, a hyper-localized dialect unique to a series of villages, including Li Ling’s native town of Thaai Imnu.

An only child, Li Ling was raised by her father and a stepmother (her biological mother died when Li Ling was three years old). Her father farmed, growing rice, corn, vegetables and squash. It was a modest existence. The bulk of the harvest went to feeding the village; only a fraction was sold or traded for other goods, since it took three days of walking to get to the nearest town with a market.

Naing Mana lived in a neighboring village, and Li Ling occasionally saw him when people got together for social events like weddings. Actually, Li Ling more than saw him — she had an eye for Naing Mana. “He made me happy,” she recalls. Though he was quiet, Li Ling admired the young man’s hardworking nature, his loyalty and his kindness. She was pleased to find out that her admiration was reciprocated, and Naing Mana began courting her. When Li Ling was seventeen, the two married.

But while the couple had found love, times were troubled. Burma’s military junta had left Chin State alone for almost a decade, but now soldiers returned and started harassing villagers and taking their crops. Many people in the region — including Li Ling’s and Naing Mana’s families — are Christians, the legacy of missionary work dating back to the 1940s, and this religious affiliation was grounds for harassment by the Buddhist-led military government. (Things were worse in neighboring Rakhine State, where the military persecuted Rohingya Muslims to the point of genocide.)

The Burmese army also conscripts young men, and Naing Mana became convinced that he’d be forced to serve in the military. “My husband didn’t want to do that,” Li Ling says. “We wanted to run away.”

Naing Mana began plotting an escape. He learned of an opportunity to slip into Malaysia with the help of some smugglers and decided to take his chances. “You should stay,” he insisted to Li Ling, fearing that he might be caught or killed. But he promised that if he made it safely out of Burma, he’d arrange for his wife to join him.

Li Ling was worried sick after Naing Mana left, but eventually she received word that the smugglers had gotten her husband to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, where he’d already found work as an electrician and was saving money for Li Ling’s escape.

In 2012, she hugged her parents for the last time and said tearful goodbyes to everyone she knew in Thaai Imnu. Then the smugglers hid her in the back of a cargo truck, where she bumped around for days, praying that she wouldn’t be discovered at some military or immigration checkpoint. Today, Li Ling remembers little of that journey, aside from being petrified with fear the entire time. But like her husband before her, she was able to surreptitiously cross the border into Malaysia.

Reuniting with Naing Mana in Kuala Lumpur proved to be its own adventure. “I’d never seen a city like that,” Li Ling remembers. “It was so huge.”

The city triggered more intimidation than exhilaration. For the next four years, Li Ling mostly stayed inside the small apartment that her husband had rented while he worked construction jobs. In Kuala Lumpur, immigration authorities regularly detained and deported undocumented Burmese people. “We knew lots of friends who were arrested,” Li Ling recalls. “But we knew we had no choice to go back to Burma.”

During the time the couple lived in Malaysia, Li Ling and Naing Mana had two sons, which strengthened their resolve to find a solution to their uncertain status. Eventually, the couple found that solution: UNHCR — the United Nations refugee agency. “We heard that under UNHCR, we could go to a better place,” Li Ling recalls.

With guidance from other Burmese asylum-seekers, Li Ling and Naing Mana applied for refugee status. After vetting the couple’s claims of discrimination in Chin State, UNHCR found them credible and granted the application. The agency told Li Ling and Naing Mana that there was an opening in the United States if they wanted it: in Colorado, a place they knew practically nothing about except that Li Ling had an uncle there.

The family arrived at Denver International Airport in early 2016. It was snowing. “I saw all the white things out there, and I thought it would be like that forever,” Li Ling recalls. (She’s now used to the Front Range’s winter weather patterns but still doesn’t like snow.)

Li Ling and her three sons.
Li Ling and her three sons.
Courtesy of Li Ling

After the weather, the next shock was Colorado’s high cost of living. The economics of rent and food and transportation in this country were a mystery to the villagers from Chin State. But the couple received assistance from Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, one of the state’s three refugee resettlement agencies, which found them a small apartment in Aurora. Naing Mana heard about a company that employs a lot of Burmese refugees to make wood pallets; he took a job there.

Naing Mana’s employment fit a standard pattern among refugees. According to Colorado’s Office of Economic Security, most refugees work unskilled jobs in production, as cashiers at retail stores or as house cleaners, and earn an average hourly wage of $11.79.

Naing Mana found the job easy enough, but he wanted something better. He would come home and complain about an obvious ethnic hierarchy at the company: Burmese people were given the most menial tasks, above them were the Mexicans, and at the very top were the white managers who ran everything.

(Li Ling’s translator, Thang Thung, had also worked at the pallet factory, but at a different time than Naing Mana. “The bosses there are actually nice, but it’s dangerous work,” he says. Once, Thung shot a nail through his ankle with a nail gun as he was building a pallet. He didn’t take any time off work, though, because he had to keep up with rent payments.)

By early 2018, Naing Mana had left the pallet company. He and Li Ling now had a third son to support, and he was looking for higher wages. He didn’t need to look for long: Through friends in the Burmese refugee community, he heard about a manufacturing plant in Lakewood, Vforge. The 20,000-square-foot facility has two 800-ton presses and associated machinery for operations that range from metal plating and casting to pressing and hammering products; applications include stamping jewelry and making computer heat sinks and gas-control valves. According to Vforge’s website, the company has been around since 1999 and is “known in the community for its successful outreach with refugee resettlement.”

Naing Mana worked there for only one month before the accident.

Vforge is a 20,000-square-foot production facility located in Lakewood.EXPAND
Vforge is a 20,000-square-foot production facility located in Lakewood.
Anthony Camera

Over the past half-century, refugees have become an integral part of Colorado’s social and economic fabric. Approximately 60,000 refugees have resettled in the state since 1980. The largest group, numbering around 10,000, is from Vietnam and came after the Vietnam War. The second-largest group comprises people from the former Soviet Union, who left there after the Warsaw Pact collapsed in the late 1980s. More recently, refugees have made their way to Colorado from the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Around 5,300 refugees in the state are from Burma.

Colorado’s Department of Human Services and its Office of Economic Security both consider refugees an economic boon for Colorado. A study released by DHS in May reported that for every dollar invested in resettling asylum-seekers in Colorado, refugees return $1.23 to the state’s economy through workplace contributions. But even as this report was released, President Donald Trump was significantly curbing refugee resettlement, capping the number of refugees allowed to come into the United States at 30,000 annually. That’s a fraction of what President Barack Obama advocated: Just before he left office, he set a ceiling of 110,000 refugees to be admitted annually.

The vetting process that refugees must go through in order to be admitted to the U.S. is tough, and even after receiving a green light to come to America, adapting to life here can be daunting, if not overwhelming. In Colorado, three resettlement agencies help newcomers make the transition: the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains and the African Community Center. There are also nonprofit organizations — such as Project Worthmore — that assist people like Li Ling and Naing Mana, who arrive in Colorado not knowing English and find the state a confusing, foreign environment.

Often, though, before going to large resettlement agencies and overworked nonprofits, refugees first reach out to other refugees and American friends they’ve made for advice on navigating the intricate rules and resources of their new home.

After learning of Naing Mana’s death, Li Ling did just that: She leaned on Thang Thung and Sarah Gee, a volunteer English teacher who had become close to the family.

Sarah Gee is an English teacher and close family friend.EXPAND
Sarah Gee is an English teacher and close family friend.
Anthony Camera

Naing Mana had mentioned some unsettling things about conditions at Vforge, Gee recalls. He’d told her he felt it was unsafe, that he didn’t really understand how to work the machines, that he believed the large hydraulic presses weren’t operating smoothly.

Li Ling told Gee that she'd never heard directly from any Vforge representatives after her husband's death, and with the help of one of Gee's contacts at the Colorado Burma Roundtable Network, she found Cliff Eley, the principal at a workers’ compensation law firm, who agreed to take up the case.

Eley explains that the premise of workers’ compensation, at least in Colorado, is that insurance companies protect both employers and employees so that no one is deemed “at fault” if there is a workplace injury. In a worst-case scenario — when there’s a fatality — a surviving spouse typically receives two-thirds of the deceased person’s wages. There is, however, a procedural move by which an insurer and the company it insures can push to reduce those payments.

“If you’re working on the job and you’re found to have violated a safety rule and get hurt, an employer can immediately cut the benefits by 50 percent,” Eley says. “So instead of getting two-thirds of wages, [the surviving spouse] is getting one-third.”

Vforge and its insurer took that approach, insisting that Naing Mana had knowingly violated a safety rule; Eley appealed their claim. Nearly three months passed before a hearing on the case, during which time Li Ling was receiving only one-third of Naing Mana’s $550-a-week salary.

“When you’re Li Ling, and you’ve got three children and you don’t speak English, that’s a long time,” Eley observes.

In preparation for the hearing, Eley interviewed multiple workers at Vforge. He ended up settling with Vforge and its insurer, so that Li Ling is now receiving between one-third and two-thirds of what Naing Mana was making at the company.

Among the people Eley interviewed was a former Vforge employee who had recently filed his own whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor regarding denial of overtime payments. (Because that case is ongoing, the whistleblower asked that his name be withheld.) The man, who had worked off and on at Vforge since 2007, was one of the first people on the scene after Naing Mana was crushed.

Naing Mana had been part of a team of six Burmese workers, only a couple of whom spoke broken English, who were changing out the stamping dies in a metal press — a technical process that’s supposed to include a “lockout, tagout” procedure using various locks and keys to ensure that the machine won’t power on as it’s being serviced.

The whistleblower says that he was on a different part of the factory floor and didn’t see the accident, but that a member of the Burmese team ran up to him in a panic, signaling that he needed help.

Naing Mana’s entire upper body had been pinched underneath the press, and his legs were outside of the machine, limp and motionless. “He was scissored,” the former employee says. “I could have opened up the press to release him, but he wasn’t moving. And knowing those machines, his head and chest would have been crushed like a grape.”

Vforge did sit employees down for yearly trainings, the whistleblower says. “A consultant would come in once a year, and we’d all sit in a conference room and see training videos,” he remembers. “But the videos weren’t in their language — Burmese.”

Instead, he says, Burmese workers relied on one Burmese employee who spoke fluent English: “All the Burmese went to him. He was like their translator.”

But given the different types of procedures that workers handle at Vforge and the language challenges, “I don’t think they were trained property,” the whistleblower continues. “[Naing] Mana didn’t have enough training to do a die change, much less a lockout, tagout properly.”

In the wake of Naing Mana’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent its own inspectors to Vforge to check for safety violations. Although OSHA officials would not answer questions about the case, they provided a copy of the citations issued against Vforge on September 20, as well as a press release dated September 25.

“The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Vforge Inc. — based in Lakewood, Colorado — for machine safety hazards after an employee suffered fatal injuries while working on a forging machine. The company faces proposed penalties of $225,046,” the press release reads. “OSHA cited Vforge Inc. for two willful, and two serious, safety violations for failing to develop lockout/tagout procedures, provide adequate machine guarding, and train employees in a language they understand. OSHA has placed Vforge Inc. in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”

Vforge faced nearly a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of fines, the release continued, concluding with this quote from David Nelson, director of OSHA’s Englewood area office: “This tragedy could have been prevented if safety measures were in place to prevent machinery from starting while being serviced.”

Jon Young, vice president and general manager of Vforge, says he cannot speak about the case because of ongoing discussions with OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor. Instead, he supplies another press release, this one issued by Vforge on September 26:

“All of us at Vforge are still grieving the loss of our worker, Naing Mana, and we have been in touch with his family, supporting them and their community as best we can. Vforge places the highest value on safety. Nothing is more important to our company than providing a safe work environment for our employees and providing the training they need to perform their jobs safely. Respectfully, Vforge disagrees with many of OSHA’s conclusions, but we look forward to working with the agency towards resolution. Working safely every shift and every day has been and will continue to be our focus at Vforge.”

Li Ling disputes the company’s claim that it had been in touch with her; all she received from Vforge, she says, were the workers’ compensation benefits she negotiated with Eley’s help.

Despite Naing Mana’s death, many Burmese refugees, including some of his friends, continue to work at the factory. And the African Community Center, one of Colorado’s three refugee resettlement agencies, vigorously defends Vforge.

Barbara Guglielminotti Valetta, job developer at the African Community Center, works with hundreds of companies each year to find employment opportunities for refugees in metro Denver. She visits the companies that she refers refugees to in order to assess their workplace environments and review wages and benefits, she says; she also interviews employees about their experiences.

“I’ve been working with Vforge since 2015, and prior to that, my colleague was working with Vforge starting in 2010,” says Guglielminotti Valetta. “We’ve been placing people there for over a decade, and we only hear very, very good things. I have an abundance of people who want to work there. They are well-adapted and integrated in the company.”

The African Community Center currently has 73 refugee clients working for Vforge.

According to Jennifer Gueddiche, interim director of the African Community Center, the resettlement agency is continuing to refer refugees to Vforge. “This is one of the good guys,” she notes. “This is one of the employers who has realized that hiring refugees is an investment to his business. We place Vforge in a special category of employers that provide a safe and profitable environment where people can actually earn a living in a job that has a future to it.”

The two take issue with OSHA’s findings. “I don’t know what OSHA is talking about,” Guglielminotti Valetta says. “We have provided interpretation for this worksite. We’ve actually paid for interpreters to go there, so we know that employees have received safety training in their native languages. And I know there is a lockout system. I did interpreting for the training myself, and they go extensively into the lockout system.”

Gueddiche suggests that the story around Naing Mana’s death is being spun. “We have a sense that there’s a volunteer out in the community who is American and is giving this family information that is upsetting them, who is maybe telling them that they should sue the company and that the company is at fault,” she says. “We’re just trying to counter that narrative. This doesn’t take away from the tragedy that occurred, but I’d also argue that this owner has bent over backwards to ensure that the family got every possible benefit that they could. This is not somebody who turned away from this and said, ‘This is not my fault.’”

Gueddiche previously worked for Lutheran Family Services, and says that agency also referred refugees to Vforge when she was there. According to Lutheran Family Services, however, Vforge is no longer an employment partner.

Li Ling relies on workers’ compensation benefits to continue living in her Aurora apartment.
Li Ling relies on workers’ compensation benefits to continue living in her Aurora apartment.
Anthony Camera

On the third floor of a crowded apartment complex near East Colfax Avenue, a place that is filled with the smell of cooking spices and the sounds of shouting, laughing, crying and chatter in many different languages, 27-year-old Li Ling maintains a stiff upper lip, as the American saying goes. She is raising her three young children on the $700 or so a month that she receives through Naing Mana’s workers’ compensation claim.

Gee continues to offer the family help, and even started an online crowdfunding campaign to help Li Ling financially. (That campaign is still running and can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/newly-widowed-mother-of-3-and-refugee) Told of Gueddiche’s claims, she denies trying to stir things up. For her part, Li Ling says that she’s nothing but grateful for everything Gee has done.

The family’s apartment looks and feels empty. The living room is bare but for a flat-screen television and some English-language alphabet charts on the walls. What’s really missing, though, is Naing Mana.

Li Ling misses hearing her husband hum or sing the old songs from Chin State. She misses going to church with him and studying the Bible. She misses watching him play with their three boys.

“The older one, the six-year-old, he knows,” she says. “The two younger ones don’t know what’s going on. Every night they keep on asking where their daddy is.”

A couple of times, when someone has knocked on the apartment door, one of the younger boys has exclaimed, “Daddy’s home!” In trying to explain Naing Mana’s absence, Li Ling first told her children that he was in heaven. Later, it felt easier to say that he was away at church. Perhaps they’re the same thing.

“She’s afraid of everything,” says Thang Thung. “She cries every night. And Li Ling told me she wants to talk directly to the company, but she has no idea what to say.”

Li Ling hasn’t shared much about Naing Mana’s death until now. She says she hopes that telling his story will encourage people to speak up about unsafe workplaces in order to prevent future accidents.

As for speaking up herself, she says, faltering, “I didn’t think it would be, but it’s really healing.”

Update: This story was updated on November 14 to clarify how Li Ling found Cliff Eley, her workers' compensation lawyer.

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