Two brothers who run one of Hawaii’s largest vegetable farms are going to trial this week on federal charges they illegally shipped 44 workers from Thailand, housed them in dirty metal containers and forced them to work for little pay.
Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms each face up to 20 years in prison without parole if found guilty after they backed out of a plea deal last September that came with a five-year maximum sentence. The trial opens with jury selection Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors claim the Sou brothers gamed the United States’ guest-worker visa system in a way that economically trapped the rural north Thailand laborers on the 3,000-acre Oahu farm, which grows a variety of foods including lettuce, apples, bananas, parsley, watermelon and pumpkin year-round in Hawaii’s mild climate.
Hawaii is cracking down on prostitution and worker exploitation by passing new laws amid the nation’s largest-ever human trafficking case.
Hawaii was one of only four states lacking a labor trafficking law or a sex trafficking law before Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the measures this week, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington-based advocacy group against human trafficking.
The new laws are being enacted as the federal government is already prosecuting labor recruiting company Global Horizons on accusations of oppressing hundreds of Thai laborers by bringing them to farms in the U.S., failing to pay them for work performed, putting them into debt, confiscating their passports and threatening to deport them. A separate federal case involves similar allegations against Hawaii’s second-largest farm, Aloun Farms.
The laws also empower police to more strongly combat prostitution when world leaders from 21 countries meet in Honolulu in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
After years of opposing a human trafficking law, law enforcement joined forces with advocates to get a proposal approved by the Legislature and governor.
Federal prosecutors want to introduce new allegations during the trial for the owners of Aloun Farms that they had a history of subjecting impoverished Thai agricultural laborers to oppressive working and living conditions.
The government says in court documents that Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou, awaiting trial in federal court on forced labor and related charges, had abused impoverished Thai workers before.
The Sou brothers are scheduled to stand trial next month on charges in connection with the importation of 44 farm laborers from Thailand to work on their farm in 2004. They are accused of importing the workers under false pretenses, having their passports confiscated when they arrived, underpaying them, restricting their movements and forcing them to live in crowded or substandard housing.
The federal prosecutor says in court documents the Sous subjected other Thai farm laborers to the same conditions in 2003 when they hired the workers from Los Angeles-based labor contracting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc.
LOS ANGELES >> An administrative law judge has ordered a Los Angeles-area temporary workforce provider to pay more than $340,000 for failing to properly pay Thai farmworkers in Hawaii and for violating their rights.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced the ruling against Global Horizons Inc., which is also under scrutiny for alleged human-trafficking violations.
The Labor Department said today that Administrative Law Judge William Dorsey ordered the company to pay $153,000 in back wages to 88 temporary farmworkers and $194,000 in fines.
The department says Global Horizons failed to pay employees for all their work and retaliated against those who complained, among other violations.
The company stopped doing business in 2006.
Company President Mordechai Orian denies the allegations and says he has appealed. He is facing criminal prosecution in Hawaii.
Federal authorities have filed a civil lawsuit accusing six Hawaii farms of “unlawful employment practices” in association with federally indicted farm labor contractor Global Horizons Manpower Inc.
Global Horizons’ owner and employees are already facing several forced labor criminal charges in what’s been called the most sweeping labor prosecution in U.S. history, but no farms were implicated in the crimes.
However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges that supervisors from the six island farms and two others in Washington state were “engaged in, and more importantly knew of, or should have known that this was going on, and took no action to remedy it.”
The Hawaii farms are Captain Cook Coffee Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Co. Inc., Kelena Farms Inc., Mac Farms of Hawaii LLC and Maui Pineapple Co. The lawsuits were filed Tuesday in Hawaii and Washington.
Global Horizons is also named in the lawsuit. In Washington state, the two farms charged are Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards.
Aloun Farms, named in the federal indictment against Global Horizons, was not implicated in the EEOC lawsuit. Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou still face separate federal forced labor charges in a case unrelated to Global Horizons.
The U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission announced today that it filed lawsuits in Hawaii and Washington state against Global Horizons Inc., a Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor, and eight farms, including six in Hawaii.
The agency said Global Horizons brought more than 200 men from Thailand to work on farms in Hawaii and Washington, where they were subjected to severe abuse.
The EEOC contends that Global Horizons engaged in a pattern or practice of national origin and race discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Hundreds of additional potential claimants and witnesses are expected, the EEOC said.
The agency said the Thai workers were assigned to work at these farms in Hawaii: Captain Cook Coffee Company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Company, Kelena Farms, MacFarms of Hawaii and Maui Pineapple Farms.
The Washington state farms named in the lawsuits are Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards.
The lawsuit follows criminal charges brought against Global Horizons last year. The U.S. government in September indicted Global Horizons owner Mordechai Yosef Orian and others with exploiting about 400 Thai workers in forced-labor conditions from May 2004 to September 2005.
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.