BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Bouala Phommachanh, 55, agreed to leave his wife and five children behind in the fall of 2005 to take a farming job in Hawaii after a recruiter visited his home in the Loas capitol of Vientiane.
The Laotian recruiter promised that if Bouala answered the questions correctly at the American Embassy, he could make enough as a farm worker in Hawaii to pull his family out of poverty. Bouala wasn’t convinced, but his wife was, and she urged him to go.
The recruiter instructed Bouala to tell the interviewer at the American Embassy that he was visiting his brother in Hawaii. Her plan worked like it had so many other times for Laotian laborers -apparently with assistance from Embassy officials – and Bouala was granted a visa. What he did not know was it was a temporary B2 visitor visa and not an H2A work visa that could be extended for anywhere from months to years.
Bouala was aware that he had to pay the Laotian recruiter, but he didn’t have the sense to ask how much. He thought his wife would take care of such things, and besides he was trusting. The recruiter said it would be easy to repay her because he’d be making considerably more on a farm in Hawaii than he would trying to sell his rice in Laos.
Little did Bouala know, that like thousands of Laotians before him, he would have been better off had he signed a deal with the devil instead.
Journey to Hawaii
When he arrived in Hawaii in October 2005, Bouala was picked up at the airport by one of the two main labor recruiters responsible for bringing illegal Laotian workers into Hawaii. They delivered him to a farm in the mountains above Kunia where he would spend the next four years picking vegetables for $4 an hour. It was backbreaking work, starting at 7 a.m. and finishing long after the sunset.
He and several other “B2” workers lived in a makeshift plywood shelter that he was told to construct. There was no kitchen, bathroom or plumbing. Workers took showers with a garden hose and had only a freestanding portable for a bathroom. The farm owner took $200 a month out of Bouala’s meager earnings to pay for his share of meals, which were delivered from outside.
Only after he arrived in Hawaii did Bouala learn from his family back in Laos that they owed the recruiter $20,000, and if they didn’t repay her, she’d take away their home. He also found out that he was unexpectedly in debt another $10,000 – he owed that money to the Hawaii recruiter who’d taken him to the farm. Even though there was nothing in writing, and no contract, the Hawaii recruiter came to the farm regularly to collect Bouala’s paycheck. Those regular collections every payday made it virtually impossible to repay the Laotian recruiter or send money to his family.
One problem many Laotians have is finding a doctor who will see them. They don’t have health insurance, and because they are in Hawaii illegally, they cannot qualify for a state insurance. They also don’t have the money for an emergency visit, so they can’t get medical care.
When Bouala became sick soon after he arrived in Hawaii, his employer and his recruiter wouldn’t take him to the doctor. This went on for years, despite his repeated requests that some times turned frantic. A tumor was growing in Bouala’s sinuses making it virtually impossible to breathe from his nose, and the dusty farm and his poor living conditions made this simple act even more difficult. As more years passed with the tumor untreated, the bigger the blockage grew.
Another illegal farm worker from Laos had an appendicitis attack when Bouala was on the farm, and instead of getting her to the doctor, the farm owner ordered her and her husband to leave because he did not want an ambulance driver discovering the poor living conditions and illegal workers. Bouala’s heart sank knowing he’d never be able to get treatment, even though he thought he might be dying.
Bouala didn’t dare run away. He’d been warned by both his recruiter and farm owner that if he left the property or spoke to anyone outside the perimeter, he would be arrested and deported back to Laos, which would mean he’d be unable to repay the debt and would lose his family home. He was sick, he was broke and he was stuck.
Rescue Efforts Underway
In 2011, Bouala was quietly rescued by another Laotian/Thai family living here legally. The first request Bouala had from them was to visit the doctor. The second was to see Waikiki Beach – a place he’d heard about and saw in a postcard but he had never been allowed to visit. He could see the city lights from his make shift shelter on the farm, and dreamed of what it would be like to go there.
Bouala was welcomed by other people in the community who gave him a nice home, new clothes, housing supplies, food and spending money. He also told his story to Hawaii immigration attorney Melissa Vincenty, who helped rescue him, and she reported his story to the proper authorities and helped him obtain a work visa so he could stay here legally.
But several weeks after that, Bouala, now 62, decided to go home and face whatever reality he’d have to in Laos. His seven years in Hawaii without family, friends and culture was lonely, difficult and too much for him to bear. Generous Laotians gave him the money for the ticket home and he slipped quietly back behind his country’s border.
Not everyone is as lucky as Bouala and can make it home.
Some Laotian Farm Workers Not so Fortunate
On October 28, 2011, Touane Tipphavanh, a 51-year old Laotian farm laborer who was about to return to Laos to see her sick child, became ill at work. She died shortly after on a Kahuku farm and was taken to Kahuku Hospital where she was pronounced dead.
Friends say she was not given health insurance as would be required under Hawaii law for any employee working more than 20 hours a week at either of the two farms where she worked, and she had not been taken to a doctor for several years despite a known heart condition.
A cremation ceremony was held for her in early November. Her husband, who traveled here with her in 2006, planned to return home to face their children.
Bouala and many other farm workers interviewed by Hawaii Reporter over the last several months have similar stories of being trapped in Hawaii or mainland states.
They are unable to go home because of huge debts incurred after being tricked by recruiters in Laos and America, fees that range between $10,000 and $30,000 a person.
They can’t make any money to send home because the recruiters take it, some of the farm owners take advantage of them with illegally low wages and no benefits, and they are afraid to leave because they have been told they will be arrested and they don’t speak English. As a result, the workers are stuck living as modern day slaves.
Laborers Suffer in Deplorable Living Conditions, Unsafe Work Environments
Many have also told horror stories not only about their living conditions, but also about their working conditions.
“I am disgusted and ashamed at what I have personally seen and experienced on these farms,” said immigration attorney Melissa Vincenty after she helped rescue Bouala.
“Victims right now are dealing with deplorable living conditions, severe medical conditions, and unsafe work environments. Questionable pesticides are being sprayed on the produce that we are buying in Chinatown and local farmer’s markets. Victims of this form of labor trafficking are also on the mainland and continue to live in the shadows,” Vincenty added.
Immigrants Seek Help
Some Laotians interviewed believe there are up to 1,000 others living like them on Hawaii farms.
Joanna Thakhamhor, a Laotian who spent her early childhood in Laos and Thailand before moving to Hawaii, speaks a number of languages, and has acted as a community resource and advocate for many Asian immigrants.
She said dozens of B2 workers have sought her help over the years, and in some cases, the farm owners have asked for her assistance to drive farm workers to the doctor, file paperwork or take care of other necessities. Many Asian farm workers, including so called “B2s”, just show up at her doorstep.
“I deal with many B2s because they come forward. Some farm owners are good and they want to get help for their workers and do what is right. Other B2 workers say they need help, but are not allowed to leave,” Thakhamhor said.
”I am worried for them because they have medical problems, especially some of the older workers. There are those who are treated as slaves and they are stuck because of the loans they have to pay,” Thakhamhor added.
Vincenty said the abuse of the B-2 program has been going on for years, but little has been known about where these recruited workers lived and worked.
Now that more has been documented, both Vincenty and Thakhamhor are helping to initiate a wider rescue effort.
“The reality is that these workers have been trapped on Hawaii farms for years. As a community, we cannot let this go on for any longer,” Vincenty said.
Thakhamor said the workers can get help if they ask – she personally has connected dozens of workers over the years with the proper services.
Plight of Thai Workers Investigated but so Far Laotians Ignored
Considerable national and international attention has been focused on Hawaii farm labor issues since Aloun Farm owners Mike and Alec Sou were indicted in 2009 on criminal charges of visa fraud and forced labor related to importing 44 Thai laborers to work on their Kapolei farm.
The Sous’ case was dropped in the midst of the September federal trial by U.S. prosecutors who gave no explanation, and the case is still in court because the Sous, who at one time pled guilty to one count of forced labor before changing attorneys and recalling their plea, are seeking compensation for their legal fees.
Another criminal case against employees of Global Horizons Manpower Company based on similar charges to those brought against the Sou brothers is set for trial in February 2012. The Thai workers placed on various Hawaii and mainland farms by Global were brought to America legally through the H2A visa program.
These cases are unrelated to the Laotian workers’ plight and the Laotian B2 workers are not employed at any of the farms included in the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against six Hawaii farms and two mainland farms related to alleged poor treatment of Global Horizons’ Thai recruits.
While the Thai workers who came here legally are getting some help and jobs, Laotian workers who never realized they arrived on the wrong kind of American visa until it was too late, are turning more desperate.
Laotians Being Threatened
Since several workers have been interviewed by Hawaii Reporter over the last several weeks, the main Laotian labor recruiter, who will be named along with others in a future Hawaii Reporter story, apparently ordered farm owners to prevent the B2 workers from leaving their respective farms for any reason, whether to buy groceries or to see a doctor. The B2 workers are threatened with being fired and deported if they don’t comply.
The workers said they have been told that if they see anyone new coming on to the farm to run and hide in the mountains or they may be arrested.
Many of the Laotian workers believe they are trapped in Hawaii, that no one is looking out for them. They see no easy way out.
Vincenty, who has helped a number of human trafficking victims in Hawaii and currently represents Thai workers in pending civil litigation against Aloun Farms, said that it is no longer in question that members of our community entrapped victims for their own financial gain, but how to deal with this reality “is up to us as a community.”
“We need to hold the farm owners, recruiters and those who were complicit in this scheme accountable for their actions,” Vincenty said.
“Many people knew about these abused workers and did nothing to help them. Now that we know what has happened, it is time to step up, make sure the perpetrators are punished, and ensure a stable future for all of the victims. These victims are here, and it is our responsibility that their voices are heard loud and clear.”
Bouala Phommachanh’s name was changed in this story to protect his family from physical and financial harm.