Hawaii's Thai laborers 'exploited, abused, subject to barbaric security measures', federal judge rules
BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN - HONOLULU - The Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor, Global Horizons, Inc., is liable for “harassing, discriminating, and retaliating against hundreds of Thai workers in the U.S., in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws,” the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi issued an order in the case, EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc. d/b/a Global Horizons Manpower, Inc., in which she detailed the exploitation, physical abuse, and barbaric security measures at the Maui Pineapple Company plantation and housing facilities where Thai workers lived.
“…Global Horizons subjected the Claimants to physical and verbal harassment based on Claimants’ race and/or national origin in order to secure the Claimants’ compliance and obedience and based upon stereotypical beliefs about Thai workers,” the judge wrote, noting discriminatory “disparate treatment of Thai workers was Global Horizons’ standard operating procedure.”
Global Horizons CEO Mordechai “Motty” Yosef Orian told Hawaii Reporter in a telephone interview on Monday that he had not yet seen the judge’s order, but called the EEOC announcement “insane” and “delusional” and he maintained the incidents detailed by the EEOC from 10-to-11 years ago “never happened.”
All housing was approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, Orian said.
He will refrain from further comment until he has spoken to his lawyers and they decide whether to appeal the ruling, Orian said.
The federal civil case against Global Horizons has dragged on for years.
In April 2011, the EEOC filed a claim against Global Horizons and six Hawaii farms, alleging “a pattern and practice of national origin and race discrimination, harassment and retaliation against Thai farm workers who were brought into the U.S. to work under the H2-A visa program.”
“High recruitment fees created a great debt for the Thai workers who faced abuses on the farms such as slapping, punching, humiliation, heavy surveillance and threats of being shot, deported or arrested,” the EEOC said.
In her recent ruling, Kobayashi said Thai workers were paid less, denied breaks, worked more demeaning jobs and were on the job for more hours than those workers who were not Thai.
Food, housing and living conditions were also “deplorable” for the Thai workers, the EEOC said.
Hawaii Attorney Clare Hanusz represented some of the Thai workers brought by Global Horizons to Hawaii.
Hanusz said for her clients, the EEOC's efforts at securing compensation for these men and their families for their sufferings is applauded and appreciated.
“This decision is further vindication that the Thai workers were victims who were taken advantage of and mistreated badly, not the opportunists and schemers Motty Orian attempted to portray them as,” Hanusz said.
Many of Hanusz clients have stories like the one of Samphong Medera, a husband and father of two, who left school at 13 years old to work with his family on their rice farm in Udon, Thailand.
Medera, 27, said when AACO International Recruitment Company Ltd. in Bankok offered to send him to America in 2003 through a contract with Global Horizons Manpower Co., he took a chance to make more money and a better life for his family.
Using the family’s house and farm as collateral, he borrowed 705,000 baht, about $17,625, from a bank and people in his village. He thought with a three-year full-time contract with Global Horizons for over $9 per hour, he could repay the debt in a year and save the rest. He was wrong, he said, adding that his decision sent him on a downward spiral that may impact him the rest of his life.
Medera is one of hundreds of Thai men who left their homeland in 2003 to 2007 via a contract with Global Horizons who say they are left with tremendous debt and in some cases, are homeless and here in Hawaii illegally.
Their stories, and subsequent complaints filed with the EEOC, led to the case against Global and six Hawaii farms.
The EEOC called the case “the largest human trafficking case in agriculture to date,” at the time claiming 200 workers were impacted.
In Medera’s case, his first job was in Washington State, where he and 60 other Thai workers picked apples.
Crammed into one house, all workers shared two bathrooms, but did not have enough beds, towels or blankets, Medera said.
After the apple season ended four months later, Medera was deported to Thailand for what he thought would be two months, but he went almost a year without work. He returned to Washington for two months, and was then sent to Oahu where he worked for two months at Del Monte Plantation, part-time. He had worked just six months in 18 months, but could not get the $17,000 returned. A Global supervisor told him not to complain or “misbehave” or “he would be deported.”
While in America, Medera said his wife left him. His family’s house and farm was in jeopardy of foreclosure because he could not repay the loan. He was depressed, stressed, embarrassed and afraid. When Medera thought in 2005 that he might be deported again, he ran away. Homeless in Hawaii, Medera worked odd jobs, cooking and doing dishes and yard work to survive.
The civil case will go to trial Nov. 18 to determine compensation Global Horizons will owe for what the EEOC describes as “abuses suffered by the Thai workers.”
Of the 6 farms accused of being part of the discrimination and abuse, five have reached settlements.
In Nov. 2013, Del Monte Fresh Produce settled its lawsuit for $1.2 million and agreed to make training and policy changes to ensure civil rights of farm workers.
Captain Cook Coffee Company, Kauai Coffee Company, Kelena Farms and MacFarms of Hawaii – all in Hawaii - reached settlements with the EEOC.
However, the case against Maui Pineapple Company is ongoing, the EEOC said.
A companion case brought by the EEOC against Global Horizons in Washington state is set for trial beginning on Sept. 15.
“The judge’s granting of judgment for liability vindicates the rights of the multitude of Thai farm workers who survived inhumane abuses and discrimination at the hands of their employers who controlled not only their working conditions but where they lived, what they could eat, and the basic right to move around freely,” said Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, which includes Southern California and Hawaii in its jurisdiction. “Employers will be held accountable for targeting workers for exploitation based on illegal stereotyping due to race or the country they come from.”
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."
In a multi-count indictment, Orian was charged with a “scheme” to import 600 Thai workers to America from 2001 to 2007. The charges include forced labor conspiracy, a document servitude conspiracy and threatening “serious harm” to workers.
FBI agents arrested Orian, confiscated his plane, held him in federal prison, ordered him under house arrest in Hawaii instead of his home in California, issued press releases about his alleged wrongdoing to media worldwide, and essentially shut down his business when they seized his company’s files and computers.
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. Three people pleaded guilty in federal court.
Orian’s trial, documented in volumes of paperwork in United States v. Orian, was set for August 28, 2012, after it was delayed at the federal government’s request.
But in July 2012, after spending millions of dollars on the case, and securing three guilty pleas from alleged conspirators, the federal government dropped the case against Orian and others.
Nanda Chitre, spokesperson for the Department of Justice, offered little explanation for the decision at the time, saying only “A team of attorneys and agents determined the government is unable to prove the elements of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt, the high standard applied in criminal prosecutions, and that proceeding with the prosecution no longer serves the public interest.”
The Thai workers then issued a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on August 13, 2012, expressing their outrage over the dismissal of the charges.
“After this long and difficult struggle we are told that all criminal charges are dismissed, even though some of the accused had already pled guilty. After years and years of investigation, we were mortified to hear this news just a month before trial. We were ready to face the wrongdoers, ready to go to the courthouse in Honolulu to confront Motti, Pranee, Sam, and all the rest of them about what they had done to us. We wanted justice, “the letter said. “We are sorry that this case has come to an abrupt end without ever being tried. We are especially sorry because we know what we have undergone and what we are still enduring today because of Global and nothing is ever going to change that fact.”
Orian has continued to vigorously fight the civil charges brought against his company by the EEOC in Hawaii and Washington State, all the while maintaining no wrongdoing was committed against the Thai workers.
Editor's Note: workers interviewed by Hawaii Reporter asked their names be changed to protect them from retaliation in Thailand or deportation from America.
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