BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN AND JIM DOOLEY – Chakkree Sriphabun is one of 44 men who left his family behind in Thailand in September 2004 to come to Hawaii to work for Mike and Alec Sou at Aloun Farms.
To pay recruiting fees, Sriphabun secured a $20,000 high interest loan with his family’s home and land as collateral. He believed, being paid $9.42 an hour as his contract specified, that he could make that money back in a year and spend the next two years building enough wealth to bring his family out of poverty.
The $20,000 was a major investment – he knew he could work his entire life in Thailand and never make that money back. But Sriphabun left his wife and two children and extended family behind, believing he could make a better life for them.
When he and the other workers arrived in Hawaii, it was not what they expected. He thought, as the other workers did, that they’d live in “5-star housing,” but instead, they crowded 44 men into one 5-bedroom, 2-bathroom house. There were not enough beds so some slept on the floor. They woke at 4 a.m. so everyone could shower, and were driven to work at 6 a.m. in a produce truck with a vertical sliding door and no windows. They didn’t eat breakfast, and if they weren’t fast enough, they didn’t get lunch either. Often lunch and dinner were combined into one meal. When the Sous became afraid that they’d be reported to the police for the overcrowded conditions, the workers said half of them were forced to move into containers on the farm. Bugs would swarm at night and bite them, and they’d have to scoop cold water out of an outdoor pipe to bathe.
They were tolerating all of this until they figured out that they didn’t make the $9.42 an hour required under the H2A visa program. Even worse, after 5 months, the Sous told the Thai workers to leave the farm because the federal government did not renew their visas. Sriphabun’s plan to make back the $20,000 never materialized, and instead, the high interest kept building and the bank came to take his family’s land. The workers had no place to go, no place to live and no way to make money legally without a visa extension.
Sriphabun told his story to the media today for the first time, but he was hoping to speak to the jury that was convened in the criminal case against the Sou brothers. In 2009, the brothers were charged with forced labor and visa fraud and more charges were added in 2010.
But the U.S. Department of Justice made some fatal mistakes during the first two weeks of what was expected to be a four-week trial. A statement by Washington D.C. Prosecutor Susan French to the grand jury about legality of recruitment fees in 2004 was under fire by the defense.
In a dramatic turn of events, French, who worked on the case for two years, withdrew citing a serious illness. FBI Special Agent Gary Brown was transferred just weeks before the trial, leaving Laura Salazar, who’d been an FBI agent for just a year, to speak about the FBI investigation Brown had headed up for many months before. And when senior supervisors flew in on Wednesday evening, they decided to withdraw the charges and end what had become a confusing mess. Thursday, Susan Cushman, who had to take over for French temporarily when the judge would not delay the trial, told U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway that the Justice Department dropped the criminal charges against the Sous.
While the Sous and their attorneys, Thomas Otake and Thomas Bienert were elated, and slammed the Justice department for being inept and overzealous at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, the Thai workers were devastated.
“For the world, America is like the land of justice. If the judge decides the case this way, it is injustice for 44 of us,” Sriphabun said. “Alec and Mike might have had sweet dreams last night, we had nightmares.” Sriphabun said his mother was so upset with the outcome of the criminal trial, that she said she would kill herself.
In a 2007 interview with Hawaii Reporter, Alec Sou claimed they did not know about the recruitment fees until it was too late, but a key witness in the case told the jury that Alec Sou received $2,500 per worker in recruitment fees in 2004, which is something the workers did not know. Another of the workers, 46-year-old Sam Khanja, likened this to “forced labor between countries.”
“It’s like being robbed. They promised us a bright future. What happened?” Sriphabun said. “I could work my whole life and not see that amount ($20,000) of money. It is a big sum of money and the land from our ancestors, even if I sell all those I would not come up with that amount of money.”
One of the accusations was the workers were confined. The workers said that if wanted to leave the Waianae house, they had to use a piece of wood to climb over the fence. “We did not know if we were confined or not but if we wanted to buy phone cards we had to climb over the fence.” Why not use the gate? one reporter asked. “The gate was locked,” they said.
Despite the criminal case imploding, the Thai workers’ saga in Hawaii is far from over. Civil attorneys Clare Hanusz and Melissa Vincenty are representing 32 of the men in a civil case. The law partners are the ones who brought the case to the federal government on the workers’ behalf when they believed crimes against their clients had been committed.
In response to claims by the Sous’ attorneys that their clients had been proven innocent, Vincenty said that was untrue.
“The Sous are not innocent or guilty at this point – they were never tried.” She said in a civil case, the burden of proof different and there are different remedies. We will vigorously pursue these charges,” she said.