BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Americans celebrated independence, liberty and freedom on Fourth of July, but a new report from the U.S. State Department shows there are plenty of people in this country who aren’t free.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday on how forced labor and modern-day slavery is being combated, and reviewed an earlier report that documented human trafficking around the world.
Some 21 million victims worldwide are trafficked for both sex and labor, the report said. Throughout America, victims are forced to work in virtually every economic sector.
While human trafficking is highly profitable for traffickers, reaping an estimated $150 billion annually, taxpayers and legitimate businesses suffer as a result.
Retired Gen. Charles Krulak, who is working with Human Rights First to develop an effective strategy to combat human trafficking, noted in a recent editorial that human trafficking creates an unfair advantage for those enterprises that use slave labor because their costs and prices are lower. Traffickers also don’t pay taxes, he said, but create an enormous need for public spending on security, border control, law enforcement and victim rehabilitation.
The U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted just 161 human trafficking cases in 2013 and imprisoned 174 human traffickers, the report said.
Oahu farms harboring Asian trafficking victims
The International Labor Organization says agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable for human trafficking.
Hawaii Reporter’s award-winning investigation into labor trafficking on several of Oahu’s Asian vegetable farms over the last four years has documented this is the case in Hawaii.
Some 1,000 workers from Laos were trafficked to Oahu via a B-2 visitor visa scam over the last decade, forced to work off their debt to traffickers — as much as $25,000 each, advocates said.
The U.S. Department of Labor has investigated some of the cases Hawaii Reporter uncovered, including Fat Law Farm, a 425-acre spread in Leeward Oahu, which must now pay $428,800 in back wages and liquidated damages to workers and another $31,200 in civil penalties because of “deplorable housing, safety and health conditions for workers.”
Investigators noted in a June federal filing they also found what they called “elements of human trafficking” and referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation.
Another issue that concerns advocates is workers being forced to mix and spray pesticides without training or protective gear and without the ability to read English instruction labels.
Fat Law was cited in 2012 for illegal pesticide use on its basil crops. The farm deems itself the “King of Basil” in Hawaii, but was ordered by the state Department of Health to destroy all 29 acres of its basil crop because its workers used an unapproved pesticide.
Another farm labor case was settled in June when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission obtained a multimillion dollar settlement for 500 laborers brought to Hawaii from Thailand over four years beginning in 2003 by the Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor, Global Horizons, Inc.
The EEOC filed a class action national origin and race discrimination lawsuit in 2011 against Global and six farms. Five of the six farms will pay a combined $3.6 million.
U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi issued an order finding the company 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.
Commercial fishing industry rife with human trafficking
The State Department report said forced labor on inland, coastal and deep sea fishing vessels is growing.
Bryant Carvahlo, a former federal investigator with the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the Hawaii commercial fishing industry is rife with the exploitation of illegal aliens.
These aliens are smuggled into Hawaii for around $10,000 a person, and then forced to live in unsanitary conditions on fishing vessels docked at Honolulu piers where they are paid as little as $300 a month for full-time commercial fishing work, he said.
Carvalho, concerned about human rights violations and illegal labor’s impact on legitimate fishing businesses, filed complaints with a number of government agencies. He also called on the Department of Land and Natural Resources to stop selling commercial fishing licenses in bulk to private agents who then provide the licenses to illegal alien crew members.
DLNR director William Aila refused to comment on the practice and instructed his spokesperson to tell Hawaii Reporter the agency will not participate in this story.
As a result of Carvahlo’s complaint, the state attorney general’s office opened an investigation into both DLNR’s fishing license distribution practices and a Department of Transportation harbor division policy that has allowed illegal aliens to live on boats at the piers.
Watchdog.org’s own investigation revealed there is little oversight of commercial fishermen and their vessels, including no minimum wage requirement and no agency regularly ensuring sanitary and safe living conditions or verifying workers are not trafficking victims.
While the U.S. Coast Guard partners with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations to do periodic inspections, their oversight is limited, Carvahlo said.
Children targeted by sex traffickers
The State Department reports America’s children are tricked, kidnapped and coerced into working in the sex trade.
Kathryn Xian, spokeswoman for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, knows all too well that also happens in Hawaii. Girls as young as 11-years-old are recruited from schools, beaches and malls through a sophisticated network of pimps and traffickers.
Once trapped by traffickers, victims are beaten, raped and forced to work as prostitutes under the threat their families will be killed if they try to run away, she said.
There are some 100,000 ads for Hawaii-based prostitution services posted online each year, Xian said, and many providing these services are Hawaii children.
The problem became so serious in the islands, Shared Hope International awarded Hawaii an “F” in its December 2012 national report on child sex trafficking laws. Since then, Xian’s group and others have worked diligently to raise that grade, passing a number of laws they believe will help address the multifaceted problem.
Krulak said the release of the trafficking report should serve as a “wake up call” and “should rally a range of sectors in the United States to join forces to change the business proposition for traffickers by making modern day slavery both more costly and more risky.”
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com