Combatting Modern Day Slavery in Hawaii and Mainland U.S.

Photo courtesy of The Age Cases
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Photo courtesy of The Age Cases

BY CHANCHANIT MARTORELL – The Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles is a community economic development organization founded in 1994.  The mission: Protecting the rights of disadvantaged and vulnerable Thai and other ethnic immigrants and improving their socio-economic well being through health, human and legal service resources, housing and community development, advocacy, and education.


Thai CDC played a pivotal role in the landmark and famed El Monte Thai Slavery Case considered the first case of modern day slavery in the United States since the abolishment of slavery. We participated in the multi-agency task force pre-dawn raid on the compound on that fateful day of August 2, 1995 and liberated over six dozen men and mostly women from conditions of slavery.

Unfortunately, we learned that the El Monte Case was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past 16 years, Thai CDC has handled half a dozen more trafficking cases involving over 400 Thai victims. In 1998, we co-founded the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. We are confronted by new and ever more unsettling trafficking and slavery cases – forced prostitution, involuntary servitude, debt peonage, even the renting of children for use in the trafficking of women.

Worst of all, the majority of the cases in the US continue to be Thai and interestingly, male not female. Going against the common perception of human trafficking as the trafficking of women and girls for sexual slavery, the majority of our victims are males and the purpose for which they are trafficked include garment work, domestic work, welding, and now farm work. And our current farmworkers’ case is now considered the largest case of human trafficking in United States history. We realized the magnitude of this case immediately upon learning that Global Horizons brought in over 1,100 Thai farmworkers to the United States between 2003 and 2005 by legal means through the agricultural guest worker visas known as H2A visas. Hence, we are now seeing a trend of a legalized form of slavery.

To step up our efforts in combating this scourge of human trafficking and modern day slavery and winning even more victories for victims, Thai CDC launched the SERI Project last month. SERI means freedom in Thai and stands for Slavery Eradication and Rights Initiatives. Thai CDC has been working on the Global case since 2003 when the first Thai farmworker escaped from one of Global Horizons’ contracted farms in Hawaii.

As more farmworkers started escaping from various Global Horizons farms located in different states on the mainland and off and coming to Thai CDC for aid and relief, we immediately reported the case to the US Department of Justice, the US Department of

Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Royal Thai Consulate General in Los Angeles. While we pressed the US Department of Justice to launch an investigation and begin the criminal prosecution, we also pursued a civil means of justice by filing charges of civil rights violations and discrimination based on nationality with the EEOC on behalf of over 200 farmworkers having succeeded in winning compensation for trafficked Thai welders in the past through EEOC. As advocates we leave no stone unturned to achieve justice for our workers.

The escaped workers shared a similar story of debt, deception and threats. I have seen these elements time and time again in my work with trafficking victims. I have now worked on seven major cases of human trafficking involving over 400 Thai nationals.

These workers’ stories were just like the stories of other trafficking victims. Of the over 260 farmworkers that finally made contact with Thai CDC in the course of several years, we found a common pattern of workers paying between 600,000 and 900,000 baht to come to work in the US, well above the amount the Thai labor ministry sets for agricultural work in the US, which is 65,000 baht

The Thai farmers were recruited by Thai brokers on behalf of Global Horizons, the company that applied for H2A visas for seasonal farm workers to work between three to six months on each farm. The workers were promised between $8.53 and $9.50 per hour but $42 was deducted from the workers’ pay for food. However, they were told by the brokers that they could work for three years making them believe that they had enough time to pay off their debt. However, the farmers who didn’t escape were deported back to Thailand after their three month H2A visas expired leaving them with insurmountable debt back home and the risk of losing their farms and ancestral homeland that they had mortgaged to pay the exorbitant recruitment fees.

Over half of the farmers came from Northern Thailand and were subsistence farmers. To pay the commission fee to the recruitment companies, they borrowed heavily from banks and private lenders and have debts ranging from 300,000 to 1,000,000 baht. Workers were sent to farms in various states in the United States to harvest all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Once they arrived in the US, Global Horizons seized the workers’ passports and visas and did not provide any contract agreements. Because the workers did not have any form of identification, they feared leaving their premises. They were also threatened with deportation. Their phone calls were monitored by agents of Global Horizons and no visitors were ever allowed on the farms.

Farms were located in rural areas, therefore transportation was always provided by Global Horizons. In the case of one of the Hawaiian farms, the farmworkers were housed in an abandoned school house with 18 workers to a room in a very remote area that was at a great distance from the actual farm. Because they were always hungry, they had to eat leaves off the plants behind the schoolhouse. Their hours were regimented. A Thai overseer of Global’s gave orders to the workers. He would be described by workers as cruel and abusive as he would make threats of physical harm to the workers if they dared escape or disobeyed his orders. Posted at all times at the schoolhouse were Global Horizons guards. To evade the guards, one farmworker had to escape in the cover of darkness and walk quietly through a sugar cane field so as not to be detected until the break of dawn. The sugar cane field ended at a road where he sought help from a stranger.

Some workers lived in used freight containers in Hawaii where there were no windows, running water, electricity or basic amenities, and wooden shelves were used as beds.

Our assistance to over 400 Thai victims of the most severe form of exploitation and human rights abuse over the past 16 years have included providing an immediate response team that arranges shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and legal counsel for the victims.

While we help them overcome their trauma, we develop their survival and self-sufficiency skills and prepare them to seek redress and restitution through various legal channels.

For almost eight years now, Thai CDC has been working with legal aid organizations and private law firms throughout the U.S. to file legal and immigration relief for the farmworkers such as looking into private civil law suits, alien tort statute claims, and applying for their T visas.

Due to the real fear of retaliation back in their home country, families of the victims are being reunited with them in the United States. The relief, education, counseling and advocacy that Thai CDC provides to each victim require extensive and comprehensive case management. Once the family members are reunited with the victim, we must help them resettle requiring additional case management (such as obtaining social security cards, proper forms of identification, public benefits, housing, furnishings, personal supplies, and more).

As a result of our campaign for redress and restitution on behalf of victims, we have been instrumental in transforming victims into agents for social change and in influencing legislation to reform workplace conditions and to provide adequate protections and legal status for victims of trafficking. Our unwavering pursuit of justice in these cases won us much acclaim and recognition. However, there still remain too many men, women and children around the world victimized by human trafficking every day. Los Angeles,

California continues to be a major hub for human traffickers. Today, we are pleased to stand with our partners in the federal government and the community to achieve the ultimate goal of making survivors of human trafficking whole persons again with the will and self-determination to pursue justice and to lead an independent and productive life.

Chanchanit Martorell is the Executive Director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, California





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