BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Alay Tansili left his family and home in Vientiane, Laos, in 2006 and moved to Hawaii after his wife encouraged him to seek a job in America. Like many Laotians in that impoverished country, Alay and his family believed America to be the land of opportunity, a safe place to work and make enough money in a year or two to pull the family out of poverty forever.
He never dreamed that just five years later at age 46 he’d be confined to a bed in the hospital after suffering a debilitating stroke, facing the possibility that he’d never walk again, and in the middle of a tug of war with his employer and his attorney over whether he should be forced to return home while he’s unable to care for himself.
Alay’s story is shared by many Laotians now secretly working on farms in Hawaii. For a steep price, a recruiter in Laos helped Alay arrange his travel and prepared him for questions from American Embassy officials. He did not realize he was coming to Hawaii on a B2 visitor visa, not an H2A work visa. His B2 visa expired quickly, leaving him unable to work in the country legally and unable to pay back the recruiter.
But Hawaii is rife with farm owners looking for cheap labor, and while there are many honest, diligent farmers, there are also many unconcerned with workers´ immigration status. Alay says he secured a job for $1,500 a month at a Kahuku farm where he picked beans and bananas for as long as ten hours a day, seven days a week, for the next four years. He slept in a tiny makeshift plywood shack with no plumbing or electricity and no furniture except for his cot. The structure, which has no windows or doors and no front wall, has no barrier to the rats, chickens, peacocks, mosquitoes, spiders and centipedes that live there.
The hard farm labor exhausted Alay. He found it difficult to sleep. Even worse were the many bad reactions he suffered after mixing and spraying chemicals on the crops and burning the chemical containers as he was directed.
After handling hazardous chemicals without training or protection for as many as three days a week for at least four years, he collapsed this week. He was transported to Kahuku Hospital and then to Castle Medical Center where he is now recovering from a stroke.
While Hawaii employers are obligated to pay for medical insurance coverage for their workers, Alay’s employer did not offer this benefit. Now he is unable to qualify for the 24-hour care he requires, which means he will have to face the reality that at age 46, he may never walk again.
But Alay has one glimmer of hope – his friend Khamfanh Keohavong, also from Laos, worked on the farm with Alay for four years before quitting for similar reasons, and is now helping him.
Khamfanh said he collapsed several times after spraying the same chemicals that hurt Alay. A doctor in Queens Medical Center said in recent weeks the chemical exposure may have caused Khamfanh to develop a brain tumor.
Melissa Vincenty, a local immigration attorney who represents several dozen human trafficking victims in Hawaii originally from Thailand and Laos, agreed to help Khamfanh, and now she is also representing Alay. Vincenty said that after interviewing her new client, she discovered that Alay’s sister and mother were in Hawaii under the same conditions.
On Friday, Vincenty visited the farm in Kahuku where Alay said he works so she could meet with the farm owner, Tony Law, and obtain Alay’s passport and personal effects.
Vincenty said Alay and Khamfanh have worked under “terrible conditions” and they were sickened after spraying chemicals several days a week over a period of years.
While Khamfanh experienced blackouts and numbness is his limbs, Alay suffered from rashes, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, numbness in his arms and legs and the loss of his sense of taste.
Alay had been afraid to leave the farm as Khamfanh did, because he was under the impression that his situation is not as bad as what other Laotian workers are experiencing in Hawaii.
Farm owner Tony Law, who was reached by phone Monday, refutes any connection to Alay other than being his “friend.”
Law said Alay came by the farm from time to time as a friend to help him. He denies his workers handle chemicals – Law says he personally takes care of that.
Law also rebuffs the accusation he employs illegal workers even though some of his own farm laborers say he’s employed up to a dozen at one time.
Law said he didn’t have to provide medical care for Alay or farm laborers because they float from farm to farm and are not his employees.
Law also refutes the accusation that workers live or work in poor or dangerous conditions.
Law has been aggressively trying to get Alay to return home immediately to Laos, even taking his passport to a travel agent to secure a ticket.
But Alay, who has not yet been discharged from the hospital after his stroke last week, told Vincenty and Khamfanh that he wants to remain in Hawaii – at least until he is strong enough to travel on his own.
Even though doctors had already told Law that Alay could not be released, Law came to pick up Alay at the hospital this weekend.
Law brought two other men with him to the hospital and wheeled Alay out of his room toward the elevator twice on Saturday morning.
Vincenty said the first time a nurse stopped Law, and the second time, Alay’s friends who came to visit stopped Law and told him
that Alay could not leave the hospital, much less Hawaii.
Law denies he was trying to sneak Alay off the grounds and said he was only trying to give Alay a break from being in his small room.
But Joanna Thakhamhor has her suspicions. She was at the hospital on Saturday with Khamfanh and her husband planning to visit Alay when they ran into Law wheeling Alay down the hallway for the second time.
Vincenty said Alay’s story is similar to many other Laotians she interviewed over the last few months.
“What we seem to have uncovered is part of a bigger problem that has been going on for some time. These Laotians are stuck here until they are sent home because they are not useful to the farm owners any more. Many are in their fifties, sixties and seventies and suffer heart attacks and strokes because of their working conditions, schedules and lack of health care and nutrition. We need help to figure out how to help them,” Vincenty said.
Vincenty and others involved in interviews with Laotians are just beginning to evaluate the extent of the recruiter fees they paid, who they were paid to in Hawaii and Laos, and how the network that brought the workers here operates.
“But we are going to get to the bottom of it,” Vincenty promised.
Alay and Khamfanh and others have been brave enough to tell their story,” Vincenty said, adding that those who came forward are getting the help they need.
But for some, like Toune Tipphavanh, help will not come in time.
Toune, a 51-year old Laotian farm laborer working at a Kahuku farm owned by Tony’s brother, Thomas Law, became ill one day while at work and died shortly afterward.
Hawaii Reporter’s Jim Dooley attended a cremation ceremony held for her in early November.
Friends said Toune was not taken to a doctor for several years despite a known heart condition.
Her husband, who traveled here with her in 2006, returned home to bring their children the sad news.
Vincenty said these stories can have a better ending if people come forward.
“We highly urge people not to be afraid and to assist with this investigation,” Vincenty said.