By LAWRENCE DOWNES
This is a story of two farmers, Laotian immigrant brothers who grow vegetables in Hawaii. People love their onions, melons, Asian cabbage, herbs and sweet corn, and their Halloween pumpkin patch is a popular field trip for schoolchildren all over Oahu. They count local politicians and community leaders among their many friends, and run a charitable foundation.
Though they are relative newcomers, their adopted home is a state that honors its agricultural history, where most longtime locals are descendants of immigrant plantation workers. The brothers fit right in.
But they had an ugly secret. A captive work force: forty-four men, laborers from Thailand who were lured to Hawaii in 2004 with promises of good wages, housing and food. The workers sacrificed dearly to make the trip, mortgaging family land and homes to pay recruiters steep fees of up to $20,000 each.
According to a federal indictment, the workers’ passports were taken away. They were set up in cramped, substandard housing — some lived in a shipping container. Many saw their paychecks chiseled with deductions for food and expenses; some toiled in the fields for no net pay. Workers were told not to complain or be sent home, with no way to repay their unbearable debts.
The news broke last August. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice filed charges of forced labor and visa fraud. The farm owners agreed to plead guilty in December in Federal District Court to conspiring to commit forced labor. They admitted violating the rules of the H-2A guest worker program, telling the workers that their labor contracts were “just a piece of paper” used to deceive the federal government.
I wish I could say that at this point the case so shocked the Hawaiian public that people rushed to aid the immigrants, who reminded them so much of their parents and grandparents. That funds were raised and justice sought.
But that didn’t happen.
In an astounding display of amnesia and misplaced sympathy, Hawaii rallied around the defendants. After entering their plea deal, the farmers, Michael and Alec Sou of Aloun Farms, orchestrated an outpouring of letters begging the judge for leniency at sentencing. Business leaders, community activists, politicians — even two former governors, Benjamin Cayetano and John Waihee, and top executives at First Hawaiian Bank — joined a parade attesting to the brothers’ goodness.
The men were paragons of diversified agriculture and wise land use, the letter writers said. They had special vegetable knowledge that nobody else had, and were holding the line against genetically modified crops. If they went to prison, evil developers would pave their farmland. Think of the “trickle down impact,” one woman implored the judge. Besides, their produce was delicious.
The friends pleaded for probation, fines, anything but prison. The workers, now scattered to uncertain fates and still in debt, have seen no such empathy.
The Sous were supposed to have been sentenced months ago, but at a hearing in July they made statements that muddled and seemed to contradict their plea agreement. The vexed judge, Susan Oki Mollway, postponed sentencing to Sept. 9, so they could get their story straight. Back in court this month, the men recanted some of their sworn testimony, so the judge threw the plea deal out. Now there will be a trial in November.
Another shocking story emerged in Honolulu this month: a federal grand jury indicted six people on charges of enslaving 400 Thai farm workers on Maui and elsewhere — the largest trafficking case in American history. In Hawaii, no uproar ensued. The pumpkin-patch field trips are still booked.
Hawaii has a state motto: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono, or the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Hawaiians use “pono” to mean what is just or right, in harmony with nature and with other people. The words hang on huge bronze seals at the State Capitol, and I feel sure that most longtime residents of Hawaii can easily recall and recite them, in Hawaiian and English.
Whether some of them ever think about what the motto means, or care, is another question.