The exploitation of impoverished Thai farm workers by a Los Angeles-based labor contractor went on for longer than federal prosecutors had previously disclosed and involved more workers and more growers in more states, including Del Monte and Aloun Farms on Oahu and a macadamia nut farm on the Big Island, according to a federal indictment unsealed yesterday.
The indictment, an update to one returned last September, adds more charges of forced labor and related offenses against labor contractor Global Horizons Manpower Inc. owner Mordechai Yosef Orian and five alleged co-conspirators, officers in his company and recruiters in Thailand. The new indictment adds two more Global Horizons officers as defendants.
Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou are facing separate federal forced-labor charges for actions unrelated to Global Horizons.
Last September’s indictment said Orian, 45, an Israeli national, and his co-conspirators exploited about 400 Thai workers in forced-labor conditions from May 2004 to September 2005. It named only one property where the workers were allegedly confined and forced to work, the valley isle’s now-defunct Maui Pineapple Farm.
A 70-year-old Waipahu farm worker who died when a truck backed into him at Aloun Farms last Saturday was identified by a family member as Pedro Cervantes.
The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office said Cervantes died of multiple internal injuries from the accident.
Cervantes was hit about 1 p.m. on a dirt road across from the Waipio Costco on Ka Uka Boulevard.
“I knew him as a good person,” said Monica Cablay, 18, a distant relative of Cervantes. She said he would visit her house on special occasions and left behind children and grandchildren. “He just looked like a happy person.”
Police have opened a third-degree negligent homicide investigation. The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is investigating the death.
HONOLULU – The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest farm face new federal charges that they exploited dozens of Thai workers by lying about their wages and confining them to the farm.
A federal grand jury re-indicted brothers Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms on charges that they lured the Thai workers to Hawaii with false promises of high wages, and then kept them working by threatening deportation and confiscating their visas.
The Sous initially reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors but then disputed some of the facts they had earlier acknowledged. Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway last month rejected the deal, and the Sous instead pleaded not guilty.
The Sous would have faced up to five years in prison under that agreement.
Now, the Sous could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the new charges handed down Wednesday.
Attorneys for the Sous said Thursday that they would plead not guilty today to all 12 counts.
A federal judge has ordered the return of $196,000 the operators of Aloun Farms had previously paid as restitution for 24 Thai workers they are accused of exploiting.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou paid the money in August after they pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit forced labor in connection with the importation of 44 farm workers from Thailand.
The money was not distributed but held by the court. It was to be distributed to up to 24 workers at $8,000 each worker. At the time the Sous agreed to pay the restitution, the government had identified 21 workers as victims of human trafficking.
The $8,000 represented up to half of the upfront money the workers paid recruiters to get the farm jobs on Aloun Farms.
The Sous withdrew their guilty pleas last month and are scheduled to go to trial next month.
The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest farm are looking to get back $192,000 from the federal court clerk in Honolulu.
The money was to have been divided among 24 Thai farm workers under a plea agreement initially accepted by Alec Sou and his brother Mike Sou of Aloun Farms.
But a federal judge rejected the deal because the Sous disputed some of the facts they had previously acknowledged in the plea agreement. They then changed their pleas to not guilty.
The human trafficking trial of the owners of Aloun Farms in Kapolei is set to begin Nov. 9. In all, they are accused of exploiting 44 imported laborers from Thailand.
In 2008, a report from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and the state Department of Agriculture estimated that between 85 percent and 90 percent of the state’s food was imported every year and concluded that there wasn’t much anyone could do to change the situation.
” … Even though Hawaii can conceivably grow anything that we consume, the quest to achieve 100% food self-sufficiency is impractical, unattainable and perhaps impossible, as it imposes too high a cost for society,” the researchers said.
Hawaii’s relatively small farms could never match the output or efficiency of the vast mechanized farms on the mainland, the report said. Island products would always be more expensive to grow and buy.
Still, the report was more a call to arms than a dark prophecy.
Pointing out that Hawaii’s geographic isolation left its food supply vulnerable to disruptions caused by forces and events beyond control, such as fuel costs, shipping strikes and farm production fluctuations, the report said it was of vital importance that the state not overlook the value of a small but thriving home-grown market.
A healthy agricultural base not only serves as a buffer against outside forces, it provides residents with fresher, tastier, healthier food and could put millions of dollars back into the island economy, the report said.
“I think we are at the crossroads,” says Dr. Matthew Loke, administrator of the state’s Agricultural Development Division and a co-author of the 2008 report with Dr. PingSun Leung of UH-Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “Whether we can seize those opportunities or not, that’s our challenge.”
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.
In 2008, there were 202 requests (more than twice the number of requests in 2006 and 2007), and 137 of those were approved.
Across the nation in 2009, 5,177 workers entered the U.S. under the
H-2A program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The problem is supply versus demand.
“If Hawaii is going to increase its agricultural sector, somebody’s gonna have to do the work in the fields,” said Mae Nakahata, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 1,600 members in the local agricultural industry. “A lot of the local people don’t want to do that type of work, so where is that labor going to come from?”
Nakahata said many farms are tiny, family operations that can’t handle the workload by themselves.
“A lot of our farmers are dependent on second and third parties to get their labor because they’re not large companies,” Nakahata said. “They depend on the contractor, and that the contractor is doing its job correctly.”
Many local farms relied on Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Los Angeles-based recruiting contractor whose president and associates are now accused in what’s been called the largest human trafficking scheme ever prosecuted in the U.S.
Federal investigators allege that Global Horizons, headed by Mordechai Orian, hired Thai workers under false promises of high wages, but later revoked their traveling documents and violated their rights.
The Global Horizons case involves about 400 farmers who passed through Hawaii from May 2004 through September 2005. The case includes 14 farms around the state, including Maui Pineapple Farms, Aloun Farms, Del Monte Hawaii and the Kauai Coffee Co.
None of the farms is being accused of wrongdoing in the case. Aloun Farms’ owners face trial in a separate case involving 44 Thai workers who claim to have been abused.
“Local farms are in a tough situation now,” said Nakahata. “How do you evaluate whether the contract you’re going for is legitimate?
The owners of Aloun Farms withdrew their guilty pleas to conspiring to commit forced labor this morning after a federal judge rejected their plea agreements.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou are now scheduled to go on trial in November on charges that they allegedly exploited 44 workers imported from Thailand in 2004.
They could face more charges because the federal prosecutor said the Sous had pleaded guilty on the eve of a new indictment alleging additional crimes.
Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the plea deal because the brothers disputed some of the facts in the human trafficking case.
They had faced up to five years in prison under the agreement that was thrown out.
The Sous admitted to violations of the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, but they deny withholding passports and threatening deportation.
The Sous had asked for a lighter sentence with little or no jail time based in part on the idea that their farm is too valuable to the islands’ food supply to let it go untended.
The brothers were convicted of shipping 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their farm, part of a pipeline to the United States that allegedly cornered foreign field hands into low-paying jobs with few rights.
“The incarceration of Alec and Mike Sou would threaten our food security and could endanger our future sustainability on Oahu,” wrote Kioni Dudley, president of the community group Friends of Makakilo, in a letter asking U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway for leniency. “Find some method of punishment which allows them to stay in their positions at Aloun Farms.”