From Online.WSJ.com, Tamara Audi, 21 Apr 2011.
LOS ANGELES—The federal government said Wednesday it filed civil complaints against a contractor here and eight farms, alleging they forced hundreds of Thai laborers to harvest coffee and pineapples while living in squalor and enduring threats of abuse and deportation.
The civil suits follow recent federal grand-jury indictments against employees of the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based contractor, Global Horizons, accusing them of a forced-labor scheme.
The new complaints, filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, say Global Horizons supplied the Thai workers to farms in Hawaii and Washington state. The workers were promised agricultural jobs that paid about $8 to $9 an hour, but their paychecks were gutted by fees paid to job recruiters, as well as lodging fees, the federal agency said.
The workers also were cut off from the outside world and given little to eat, according to one of the complaints.
“Modern-day slavery spans all geographies and is present, alive and well in agriculture,” said Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, at a news conference here announcing the suits.
Global Horizons didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
“Human trafficking is one of the most insidious forms of discrimination,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the federal agency’s Los Angeles district office. The agency “is committed to holding employers accountable for benefiting from the modern-day enslavement of workers from other countries.”
Federal authorities said the abuses occurred partly because the workers were Thai, who have proved more vulnerable to abuse than Western workers.
The laborers were brought to the U.S. on temporary work visas.
In one instance, according to federal officials, workers were housed in an abandoned schoolhouse to farm coffee in Hawaii, and monitored by guards. Hungry workers allegedly ate leaves from trees.
One worker escaped from the farm during the night and flagged down a stranger for help, said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director for Thai Community Development, a group that counseled many of the workers.
“Los Angeles, California, continues to be a major hub for human trafficking,” Ms. Martorell said.
According to the complaint, the Thai workers were assigned to work at six farms in Hawaii and two farms in Washington.
The federal agency said the farms “not only ignored the abuses, but also participated in the obvious mistreatment, harassment and unequal pay of the Thai workers.”
The suits were filed in U.S. District Court in Hawaii and in the Eastern District of Washington. The complaints seek damages, but do not specify the amount.
In the criminal case earlier this year, a federal grand jury in Hawaii indicted eight employees and agents of Global Horizons, including the company’s chief executive, alleging they conspired to force hundreds of Thais to work on farms for little or no pay.
In another human-trafficking case, the EEOC won $1.2 million in 2006 for 52 Indian men forced to work as welders in Oklahoma. The same year, the agency won a $1 million settlement against a subcontractor on behalf of 48 Thai welders who worked on the Bay Bridge in northern California.
Write to Tamara Audi at firstname.lastname@example.org