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.
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.
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.
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 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.”