500 Thai workers benefit from multimillion dollar EEOC settlement with Hawaii farms
BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN - HONOLULU – Five hundred laborers brought to Hawaii from Thailand over four years beginning in 2003 by the Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor, Global Horizons, Inc. to work on six farms will see some financial relief.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday announced a multi-million dollar settlement reached in a class action national origin and race discrimination lawsuit the agency filed in 2011 against six farms.
Four of the six farms will pay a combined $2.4 million: Mac Nut Farms of Hawaii LLC will pay the highest settlement at $1.6 million, Kauai Coffee Company Inc. will pay $425,000; Kelena Farms Inc. will pay $275,000; and Captain Cook Coffee Company Ltd. will pay $100,000. Del Monte earlier agreed to a settlement of $1.2 million.
The entire settlement – monetary relief and about 50 job offers that include housing - will be awarded to the Thai workers, but a EEOC spokesperson declined to say how the money will be divided.
The case also resulted in stricter regulations imposed on the farms. Farm owners will be required to hire a third-party monitor, train managers and supervisors, post worker rights signs in a language workers can understand and be subjected to audits.
The only farm remaining, Maui Pineapple Company, is fighting the charges. Global Horizons continues to maintain no wrongdoing. Both will go to trial in Honolulu in November.
The most recent settlement was reached just two months after U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi issued an order in the case, EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc. d/b/a Global Horizons Manpower, Inc. and found Global Horizons, Inc. liable for “harassing, discriminating, and retaliating against hundreds of Thai workers in the U.S., in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.”
Kobayashi also detailed the “exploitation, physical abuse, and barbaric security measures” at the Maui Pineapple Company plantation and housing facilities where Thai workers lived.
While Global Horizons CEO Mordechai Orian continues to lash out at the EEOC maintaining the agency officials are “lying”, two Thai workers who appeared with EEOC officials at Tuesday’s press conference shared their story.
Likhit Yoo-on, 43, from Sukhotai, Thailand, said he paid an $8,700 recruitment fee in 2005 for the chance to come to America to work as a farm laborer. He thought if he made $9 per hour and was provided housing and food, he would quickly pay off the fee and send money home to put his two daughters through school. He lived with 11 other Thai workers in a two bedroom, one bathroom house, where he slept on the floor. He couldn’t afford to buy food and went hungry. When he was sick, he was still forced to work. He couldn’t run away because Global management had his passport.
Khamjuan Namwicha, 53, from Udon, Thailand, paid a $16,500 recruitment fee with money he borrowed from the banks and family members and came to America in 2004. He thought by working diligently, he could make more money than he ever could as a rice farmer in his home country. However, he shared housing and one bathroom with 26 other workers and rode to work in a crowded bus or dump truck. “It is not what I was promised at all,” Namwicha said through a translator.
Prirom Krinsoongnoen, another Thai worker, said: “We worked and lived under terrible conditions, treated like animals in a cage. We were housed in an overcrowded place with a few rooms but many workers, and threatened almost daily.”
All three workers said they were grateful for the EEOC’s assistance.
Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, said the workers had to pay recruitment fees that were as high as $26,000, were forced to live in overcrowded housing, abused, intimidated, and denied basics like water and food. The exorbitant fees placed workers into a situation of debt bondage early on, Park said.
Some workers were so desperate, they hunted for their own food and ate birds they caught using rubber bands and rocks, Park said.
The farm owners and managers not only knew about the way the Thai’s were treated but also in some cases participated, Park said.
“We all have a responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable workers are not denied basic human dignity and life sustaining water and food. Farm and farm labor contractors – and the supervisors who represent them – must ensure all workers civil rights remain intact, no matter their race or the country they come from,” Park said.
The EEOC’s announcement was held the same day a similar case against Global and a Washington State-based farm was dismissed in a Washington court on summary judgment in their favor.
“The Washington judge said there is no proof these allegations ever happened, so the case is over,” said Global CEO Mordechai Orian.
In an exclusive interview, Orian called EEOC’s Park “delusional” and a “slanderous, pathological liar” and said none of the allegations against his company are true, calling the claims “garbage.”
“When people want to stay in America, they will say anything,” Orian said.
When asked about the workers’ claims about hunting for their own food, he said, “You know what, I am speechless. Next you will tell me the workers were cannibals and eating each other because they had no food.”
Orian said hunting is a way of life on some Hawaiian islands and there is nothing wrong with that: “If they want to hunt birds, or hogs or monkeys, what is that to do with me? How crazy is this going to get,” Orian asked.
His company’s job was never ordered to provide food, he said. Global gave workers money to buy food and drove them every week to the store, Orian said. The farmers also gave the workers food. In some cases, like at Maui Pine, Global provided a cook, Orian said.
Orian maintains all housing for the workers was approved by the Department of Labor.
Global Horizons shut down in 2006, Orian said, because of a licensing issue, and there was no interaction between Global and the workers after 2006.
“I feel sorry for the farmers. The EEOC is killing the only option the farmers have to have legal labor,” Orian said, noting many Hawaii farms are now using illegal labor and “everyone is looking the other way.”
While the EEOC case is strictly civil, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Division pursued a separate criminal against Global’s Orian in 2010, alleging he was responsible for the "largest human trafficking ring in recent history."
Six Global Horizons employees were indicted criminally in September 2010, including Orian, three executives and two Thai labor contractors. On January 14, a 10-count superseding indictment charged two other people in Los Angeles, Joseph Knoller and Bruce Schwartz, as co-conspirators.
Orian’s trial was set for August 28, 2012, but in July 2012, after securing three guilty pleas from alleged conspirators, the federal government dropped the case, disclosing nothing about its decision.
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