BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Sam Khanja was just 14 years old when his father died and he was forced to abandon childhood games for management and farming duties at his family’s 25-acre farm in Maha Sarakham, Thailand. He and his three sisters made enough money to get by financially from the cucumbers and rice that they harvested and sold in the nearby Chinatown marketplace, but Khanja wanted more for his life and family.

So when Khanja saw an advertisement for a full-time landscaping job in Hawaii for $9.60 an hour posted by the Oahu-based Aloun Farms on the Thai Department of Labor bulletin board,  Khanja jumped at the chance to work in Hawaii and get his family ahead financially.

Little did Khanja know that this decision he made in 2004 would land him 6 years later in the midst of a U.S. federal investigation over forced labor, document servitude and visa fraud and jeopardize his family’s ownership of the very land needed for survival.

On Monday, July 19, 2010, at 1:45 p.m. in Honolulu’s U.S. District Court, Judge Susan Oki Mollway is scheduled to sentence the men responsible for bringing  Khanja and 43 other Thai workers to Hawaii in September 2004.

It was nearly a year ago in August 2009 that brothers Michael Mankone Sou and Alec Souphone Sou of Aloun Farm were indicted on three counts including forced labor, document servitude and visa fraud for their role in the recruitment that Thai workers say left them in deep financial trouble.

But Aloun Farms has a long history in Hawaii’s farm industry and its avid and powerful supporters, including two former governors, high ranking government officials in the agriculture industry and senior banking executives, who are downplaying the Sous’ criminal indictment.

Sou Brothers (Alounfarms.com)

Aloun Sou and his wife Somphone, who immigrated to Hawaii from Laos, founded their farm business in 1977 on 5 acres of leased land in Waianae. They raised 4 children, including Michael and Alec, who eventually took over the family business. In addition to farming Asian vegetables, green onion and herbs, the Sous began distributing their produce in 1983 to Hawaii supermarkets. In 1995, the farm business was formalized into Aloun Farms operating on 880 acres in Ewa and Kunia. Today, as Hawaii’s second largest farm covering 3,000 acres on Oahu, they harvest mostly Asian vegetables with the help of 180 people, conduct tours and educational programs for school children and sell pumpkins during the fall season. They claim on their web site, that one of their four values is “respect for the people whom we work with.”

The Sous, who are of Laotian and Thai decent, are politically connected to some of Hawaii’s most influential people. They’ve held fundraisers and community events for some of Hawaii’s most powerful and hosted high-ranking politicians and government officials, religious leaders and business executives.

The Sous were able to obtain through The Aloun Foundation, their non-profit 501(c) 3, several loans from the Department of Agriculture including $642,000 and $2,100,000 for farm labor housing and $346,500 from the same department for rural rental assistance payments for a total of $3,088,900 from 2004 to 2009.  (Eleven Thai workers say they were housed in storage containers without air conditioning or indoor plumbing and the rest were crammed into a two-story, five bedroom house in Waianae).

Old furniture is strewn between two storage containers where Thai workers were forced to live without air conditioning or indoor plumbing

Some of the most recent federal records for this criminal case were sealed in June 2010. But in January, the federal government did release information on a plea agreement reached with the Sou brothers. They each pled guilty to one charge of importing laborers from Thailand to force them to work and agreed to cooperate with the federal government’s efforts to prosecute others involved with this case in Thailand.

William Khoo of the Thai Taipei Manpower Company and Udon NT Union Manpower Company in Udon Thani, Thailand, already was included in the indictment and K.S. Manpower Supply Company Ltd out of Bangkok, Thailand, was noted as a participant in the scheme.

The deal and their influential friends may get the Sous off without jail time.

Hawaii’s Influential Government and Banking Officials Back Defendants in Court

Some of Hawaii’s highest-ranking elected officials, bankers and agriculture officials who do business with the Sous have written to the Judge in their defense saying their incarceration would hurt the farming operation that is vital to Hawaii’s locally grown food supply.

That includes former Democratic Governors Ben Cayetano and John Waihee who submitted to the judge letters of support for the Sou brothers.

Lyle Wong PhD, administrator for the Plant Industry Division in the state Department of Agriculture, writes in a May 2010 letter that the Sous and Aloun Farms are “good people”, “honorable gentlemen” and “close, personal friends.” He says there are many challenges in the agriculture industry including labor shortages. He downplays their guilty plea and says their sentencing should allow them to get back into agriculture and put the incident behind them.

Former state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Paty also defended the Sous in a letter to the judge.

Kent R. Lau, senior vice president of First Hawaiian Bank, admits in his letter that First Hawaiian Bank has an interest in the sentencing outcome because of “numerous credit facilities to Aloun over a 14-year relationship.” In a May 7, 2010, to Judge Mollway, he attests to the character of Mike and Alec Sou and their family saying they are extremely hard working, down to earth family of unquestioned character and integrity. He also called them genuine, honest, forthright, hardworking, generous, and moral people, noting their generosity to the Hawaii Foodbank, the Hawaii Future Farmers of America Scholarship Program and to First Hawaiian Bank’s Prime Time Health Fair.

Gabe Lee, executive vice president of American Savings Bank, wrote a letter in the Sou’s defense as their banker noting their loan to the Sous in the “medium six figure range.” He also said the Sous should be congratulated for their innovative work and committed efforts in a difficult industry.

Friends of Makakilo activist Kioni Dudley says that the Sous “incarceration would threaten the food security of the people of this state” because “Hawaii grows less than 15 percent of the food we consume and Aloun Farms produces a major portion of what we grow.” He wants them to continue to farm and protect their land, which is targeted for home and rail development by city officials.

But some of the workers are hoping the Sou brothers and others involved will not only have to reimburse the workers for the estimated $15,000 to $22,500 plus interest they took from each worker, but also go to prison for what is outlined in the original 2009 indictment and confirmed as fact by the Thai workers interviewed by Hawaii Reporter both in 2007 and 2010.

Federal Indictment Details Abuse of Thai Immigrant Workers

The indictment says between April 2003 and February 2005, the Sou brothers, Khoo, and others “known and unknown to the grand jury” enticed 44 “impoverished, rural farm workers” who were making around $1,000 annually, to come to Hawaii to work at Aloun Farms. The workers were told their contract would be for three to four years for $9.60 an hour and they’d work six days a week year round. In addition, their housing and transportation would be covered.

The scheme, according to the indictment, was to entice the workers to pay high recruitment fees upfront in part by helping them obtaining high interest loans ($10,000 US dollars through the Krungsri Ayudhya Limited bank that they were directed to), and the workers secured with their family home and farmland. The workers also had to pay an additional $5,000 to $12,500 to secure the job for a total of between $15,000 and $22,500 or an estimated 15 to 22 years of their typical annual income.

The defendants including the Sous received “kickbacks” from the workers recruitment fees, “pocketing” most of the money, the indictment says.

Udon representatives told them that if they ran away in the United States even once or defaulted on their loan, they’d owe $1 million to $1.25 million in penalties.

On March 5, 2004, the Sou brothers documented with the US federal government their plan to bring 50 workers from Thailand to Hawaii. They said the workers would be paid $9.60 an hour, six days a week, 8 hours a day, for a minimum of $1,225 per month, from May 1, 2004, to November 30, 2004, with Aloun Farm covering the workers housing and transportation to the United States.

Court documents say the Sou brothers confiscated the workers passports and H-2A visas when they arrived in September 2004.

The indictment says that Sous and Khoo told the 44 Thai workers after they arrived in Hawaii that “their employment contracts were a lie and just piece of paper used to deceive the U.S. government and that Aloun Farm would not pay the workers more than $5 to $6 an hour or a flat monthly wage” and that the cost for their meals and accommodations would be deducted as well.

When the workers complained that they didn’t get the pay they were promised and unfairly had expenses taken out of their pay so they made minimal or no wages, the Sou brothers “threatened to send them back to Thailand knowing the workers could not pay off their debts and would cause serious economic harm including the loss of their family property.”

Khanja says the workers learned the 5-star accommodations they were promised was actually a 5-bedroom house in Waianae that would house all of them, forcing the workers to cram into the bedrooms and bathrooms to sleep. In off work hours, the indictment alleges and the workers confirm that they were locked in that two-story house, surrounded by a chain link and concrete fence, “limiting their movement.” Some of the workers were moved weeks later to a storage container on the farm property, which had no air conditioning or indoor plumbing. They all were ordered not to socialize with outsiders, “particularly Laotians.”

Hawaii Reporter Investigates Allegations, Interviews Workers and Government Agencies, Confronts Farm Owners

Hawaii Reporter highlighted the Thai workers’ story in a 2007 exclusive report that also documented the subsequent state and federal investigations into Aloun and the Thai recruiters.

At the same time, Hawaii Reporter also confronted Aloun Farm owners Michael Sou and Alec Sou about the allegations against them. The interview came just after state agents inspected the farm for worker wage and hour as well as safety violations. The Sous denied all of the allegations and asked Hawaii Reporter not to write a story.

The case is being prosecuted by U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington DC and also being investigated by the FBI in Hawaii.

Two of Hawaii’s leading defense attorneys, Howard Luke and Eric Seitz, are defending the Sou brothers.

Seitz made a statement to the media earlier this year: “Both brothers are going to help the government go after the people in Thailand who made false promises to the workers. Both brothers became caught up in a web of regulatory problems. We deny categorically that we did anything to abuse or harm anyone.”

Khanja says he plans to go to federal court Monday and hear the verdict himself. He is worried. His mother and sisters who are in Thailand were taken to court by the bank he borrowed the money from in 2004, since he has been unable to repay the $10,000 loan with high interest. They are in jeopardy of losing the farm they live on and rely on for food and income. He hopes he will get a settlement that allows him to repay the loan and interest in full before the family property is lost for good.

Reach Malia Zimmerman, editor of Hawaii Reporter, at Malia@hawaiireporter.com

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards.