BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Samphong Medera, husband and father of two, left school at 13 years old to work with his family on their rice farm in Udon, Thailand. When AACO International Recruitment Company Ltd. in Bankok offered to send him to America in 2003 through a contract with Global Horizons Manpower Co., the 27-year-old 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 from the 705,000 baht or about $17,625 from a bank and people in his village. He thought with a 3-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 – and his decision sent him on a downward spiral that may impact him the rest of his life.
Medera is just one of an estimated 200 Thai men who left their homeland in 2003 to 2007 via a contract with Global Horizons – and now are left with tremendous debt and in some cases, are homeless and here illegally.
Their stories, and subsequent complaints filed with their offices, led the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to announce April 20, that its attorneys have filed a lawsuit against Global Horizon and 6 Hawaii and 2 mainland farms.
Calling the case “its largest human trafficking case in agriculture to date,” the EEOC contends “Global Horizons engaged in a pattern or practice of national origin and race discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, when it trafficked over 200 Thai male victims to farms in Hawaii and Washington where they were subjected to severe abuse.”
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 enough beds, towels or blankets. 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 2 months, and was then sent to Oahu where he worked for two months at Del Monte Plantation, part-time. He had worked just 6 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’s 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 since, Medera has worked odd jobs, cooking and doing dishes and yard work to survive.
The EEOC, which enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, included Hawaii farms Captain Cook Coffee Company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Company, Kelena Farms, MacFarms of Hawaii, and Maui Pineapple Farms and two farms in Washington, Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards, in the complaint.
The EEOC claims the farms “not only ignored abuses, but also participated in the obvious mistreatment, intimidation, harassment, and unequal pay of the Thai workers.” Each defendant could pay between $50,000 and $300,000 per Thai worker on their farm.
Hundreds of additional potential claimants and witnesses may be added, said Timothy Riera, EEOC Honolulu Local Office Director and Michael Farrell, Supervising Trial Attorney, from the EEOC Los Angeles District Office, in a press Honolulu conference.
The Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles was the mainland advocacy group that helped Thai workers in West Coast states. Its director, Chanchanit Martorell, details their involvement in the case in a separate editorial on Hawaii Reporter.
INNOCENT OF CHARGES, DEFENDANTS SAID
Reached by phone, Global Horizons CEO Mordechai “Motty” Yosef Orian told Hawaii Reporter that the lawsuit and accusations were “all nonsense” and that he would say “what we need to when the time comes.” He added, “It is not going to do any good to respond at this point.”
Hawaii Reporter attempted to contact all of the six of the Hawaii farm owners. Del Monte Fresh Produce no longer operates in Hawaii and a message to the mainland corporate office was not returned; MacFarms of Hawaii is under new ownership and did not have a forwarding number for previous owners now in the mainland; and Kelena Farms could not be reached. Maui Pineapple Farms did not return calls.
The Captain Cook Coffee Company issued a statement saying it is disappointed by the EEOC’s decision to include Captain Cook as a defendant in its recently filed complaint. “Captain Cook cooperated completely in the EEOC’s investigation and provided the EEOC with all requested records, allowed EEOC to inspect its farms, processing facilities, and worker housing, and interview Captain Cook employees.”
“Captain Cook housing was in no way inadequate, having been approved by the state of Hawaii, Department of Labor, before any Global Horizon workers came to Captain Cook and the workers were allowed to come and go as they pleased.
“Despite repeated requests, the EEOC has refused to identify any act by Captain Cook with respect to Global Horizon employees that was in any way discriminatory, retaliatory or otherwise improper. The EEOC has similarly refused to explain why it believes Captain Cook was aware of any mistreatment of the workers by Global Horizons. The complaint filed this week again offers no factual basis for any of the allegations against Captain Cook.
“Captain Cook valued its positive relationship with the Global Horizons employees and provided them with a safe, fair and respectful working environment. None of the Global Horizons employees reported to Captain Cook that they were being subjected to harassment or retaliation. If the allegations against Global Horizons are eventually proved to be true, then Captain Cook believes appropriate action should be taken to protect and compensate any individuals who were mistreated.
“We feel confident that when all facts are known, they will demonstrate that Captain Cook did not mistreat the Global Horizons employees in any way, was unaware of any mistreatment by Global Horizons, and the allegations against Captain Cook will be dismissed. Captain Cook will not comment further on the lawsuit at this time due to the ongoing litigation.”
Kauai Coffee Company is the only farm that responded to the inquiry and the spokesman for the parent company vigorously disputed the EEOC’s claims.
Christopher J. Benjamin, head of agribusiness for Alexander & Baldwin, sent a statement to Hawaii Reporter saying the company is disappointed that “the EEOC continues to include our company in their claims against Global Horizons, Inc., despite years of our cooperation with their investigation against Global and without any evidence of wrongdoing by Kauai Coffee Company, Inc. We find the EEOC’s release announcing this lawsuit sensationalized and not based on facts relating to Kauai Coffee’s actions.”
He said the company has never been informed by any of the workers from Thailand, any governmental authority, or anyone else, that the Thai workers experienced any mistreatment while at Kauai Coffee.
“We both cooperated with the Federal government’s investigation, and conducted our own investigation. Our investigation confirmed a strongly positive working relationship between the Thai workers and Kauai Coffee employees. We made multiple requests of the EEOC to identify specific acts of wrongdoing and have not received any information. Therefore, we will vigorously defend Kauai Coffee Company in this lawsuit, which is built on long-unsubstantiated claims relating to Thai workers provided by Global Horizons during the 2004 and 2005 coffee harvest season.”
Benjamin explained that under its contract with Global Horizons, they paid the company for each worker a wage rate, established by the U.S. Department of Labor, and an administrative fee for Global, so Global was responsible for paying the workers.
He said the housing they provided to the Thai workers, which was in walking distance to the headquarters, was inspected by OSHA and certified as meeting the government-required living conditions/standards and regulations.
And the Thai workers had no restrictions outside of work hours, Benjamin said. “They were free to come and go and to interact with our Kauai Coffee employees. They had access to all of Kauai Coffee lands, including reservoirs and the ocean, which they used for recreational purposes. Additionally, transportation was available to other locations on the island.”
A strong relationship led to two of the Thai workers, formerly employed by Global Horizons, to be hired directly by Kauai Coffee, Benjamin said.
EEOC HANDLING OF THE CASE: SHOCKING? RECKLESS? DISTURBING?
Clare Hanusz, a Hawaii immigration attorney who brought the Global case to the FBI in Honolulu, and now represents with her law partner Melissa Vincenty an estimated 100 Thai laborers, was shocked at the press conference today when she read her clients’ names in the EEOC complaint. She said neither she, nor her clients, were told that they would be included – or warned they would be named – in the lawsuit.
“Human traffickers involved in this case are still at large in Thailand, and by naming them, their families are vulnerable,” Hanusz told the EEOC attorneys at their April 20 press conference.
“I was shocked to see my client’s name in the EEOC complaint,” Hanusz told Hawaii Reporter in a follow up interview. “All of the workers had huge amount of debt, and while some have it paid off, some have not and are still in danger of losing their land. In some cases, there are loan sharks involved, the husband is not in Thailand to protect his family, and protection for the families is not the same that exist in US.”
Calling the disclosure “reckless” and “disturbing” Hanusz said her clients should have been consulted, or the EEOC should have just used their initials. Private attorneys representing the workers also should have been notified that the lawsuit was being filed.
“In one of our cases, there was a serious threat to the wife and children because of the debt and they had to relocate.”
Hanusz said she is happy that the EEOC is advocating for the workers to try to recoup some of the money they lost, but she questioned why the lawsuit took so many years to be filed.
“The EEOC had these cases for years and declined to take action until now. People came forward to the EEOC years ago and there were assurances that something would be done to help them. People spent a lot of time on these filings, and stuck their neck out when they were most vulnerable. But there was no follow up for four years … and all of a sudden came this lawsuit.”
Hanusz, who still works closely with the FBI and US DOJ on the Global and Aloun cases, and is a member of the Hawaii anti-human trafficking task force, adds: “The timing of this lawsuit is a little curious as though the EEOC dropped the ball, and now that the FBI and DOJ has lawsuits pending, the agency is playing catch up. If they can recover something – great – that is what is really important. But I wish they had done it differently from the beginning.”
CRIMINAL CASE AGAINST GLOBAL PRECEDES EEOC CASE
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Division has been pursuing a criminal case separate from the EEOC’s civil case since indicting Global’s Orian on September 1, 2010, on human trafficking charges, alleging that he is responsible for the largest human trafficking ring in recent history.
In a multi-count indictment, Orian and others are 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. On January 14, a 10-count superseding indictment charged two other people in Los Angeles, Joseph Knoller and Bruce Schwartz, as co-conspirators.
Orian now lives at the Ala Moana Hotel where he has been under government curfew and monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet after U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Kobayashi deemed him a flight risk. Assistant US Attorney Susan Cushman filed documents claiming Orian had used 26 different aliases and four different Social Security numbers and could flee.
The DOJ has not pursued criminal charges against any of the farms named in the EEOC lawsuit.
However, owners of the Kapolei-based Aloun Farms, Mike and Alec Sou, were indicted in 2009 a separate case, by the same division of the DOJ.
The DOJ emphasizes that all defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Both Orian and the Sou brothers maintain their innocence in these cases. Orian’s side of the story is detailed here.
ALOUN FARM’S OMMISSION GOES WITHOUT EXPLANATION
Aloun Farms hired Global workers in 2003 and was the first farm in Hawaii to partner with Global in bringing Thai workers to Hawaii, according to a Hawaii Reporter interview with Orian.
Aloun Farms, which sells Asian vegetables grown on its Kapolei-based farm on Oahu, later imported its own workers from Thailand, mimicking Global’s business model.
Prior to the case against Global, the Aloun brothers were indicted in August 2009 on three counts including conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude. On October 27, the federal government added charges for a total of 12 criminal acts related to a forced labor scheme. The Sous pled not guilty October 30, and the case is scheduled to go to trial on July 26, 2011.
However, the EEOC did not include Aloun Farms in their civil case, and did not explain why other than to say they based their investigation on complaints they received.
Hawaii Reporter has copies of complaints made by Thai workers at Aloun Farms to the EEOC as early as 2006 and has interviewed workers who made complaints and never received any follow-up from the EEOC.
Hanusz noted that she was surprised that Aloun Farms was not named in the complaint. “I understand leaving out small farm with a couple of workers, but the connections between Aloun and Global are so well documented. This is a huge omission.”
She questions whether the EEOC has done a “half baked investigation” and said she hopes the agency will “work diligently to devote the resources they need to so the job is done right.”
EEOC’s Timothy Riera and Michael Farrell said the massive case took time to process because they were short-staffed and there was a language barrier. They asked Thai workers not named in the lawsuit to come forward so they can be included. Any damages recovered will go to the Thai workers, not the EEOC, they said.