Abuse, Discrimination, H-2A, Harassment, Litigation, Rights, Working Conditions

Hawaii Farms Facing Lawsuit over Laborers from Thailand

From MauiNews.com, Harry Eagar, Staff Writer, The Maui News and The Associated Press contributed to this report, 21 Apr 2011.

Maui Pineapple Co. and five other prominent Hawaii farms were sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in U.S. District Court on Wednesday. The laswuit alleges violations of the civil rights of immigrant farmworkers from Thailand.

Also a defendant is Global Horizons Inc., a California-based labor contractor that was indicted by the federal grand jury in Honolulu in September on criminal charges of holding Thai workers in involuntary servitude.

“Global subjected the claimants to uninhabitable housing, insufficient food and kitchen facilities, inadequate pay, significant gaps in work, visa and certification violations, suspension, deportation, and/or physical violence,” the lawsuit states.

Wednesday’s civil suit relates to the same events as the federal criminal indictment, but the farms were not indicted by the grand jury.

The EEOC is seeking back pay and up to $300,000 in damages for each of the workers.

About 200 Thai nationals have been identified as victims of Global Horizon in Hawaii and in Washington state, but Michael Ferrell, the supervising trial attorney for the EEOC office in Honolulu, said at a news conference Wednesday that he expects the true number of victims will be significantly higher.

More victims will be identified through discovery, he predicted, and he asked anyone who knows about other victims to call the EEOC complaint line at (800) 669-4000.

The Thai workers “were isolated from family, friends and anyone in the community” who might have helped them, Ferrell said.

The case broke when some workers managed to evade guards and sought refuge with unnamed nonprofit organizations.

The complaint does not describe what was done and where or when, except in general terms, and it does not detail what the farmers are alleged to have done.

Ferrell said Global Horizon employees were principal violators, but an investigation showed that farm supervisors “knew or should have known” about the abuses.

Maui Land & Pineapple officials did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Besides Maui Pine, which is now out of the pineapple business, the other defendants are Captain Cook Coffee Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii), Kauai Coffee Co., Kelena Farms, Mac Farms of Hawaii, and two farms in Washington state.

Kauai Coffee is a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin Inc., although A&B has announced plans to sell it.

Christopher Benjamin, head of agribusiness at A&B, issued a statement following the news conference:

“We are 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

. . . We find the EEOC’s release announcing this lawsuit sensationalized and not based on facts relating to Kauai Coffee’s actions.”

He said Kauai Coffee was never informed by Thai workers, any governmental authority “or anybody else” that the workers “experienced mistreatment.”

“Our investigation confirmed a strongly positive working relationship between the Thai workers and Kauai Coffee employees,” he said. “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 Co.”

The EEOC described the action as its “largest farmworker human trafficking” case ever.

Melissa Vincenty, a Honolulu immigration lawyer who is representing more than 75 of the workers, predicted last year that the eventual total of victims would be much higher.

She said Wednesday that recent discussions with Department of Justice lawyers prosecuting the criminal case (scheduled for trial this summer) indicated that they, too, believe the eventual totals will be “much, much higher.”

She said she plans to file civil complaints on behalf of her clients when the criminal trial concludes.

“I was happy to hear about the (EEOC’s) actions. We’ve been waiting a long time for the commission to act. I applaud the enforcement effort,” she said.

She said complaints began to surface at least as early as 2007, although the alleged abuses may have started even earlier, in 2003 or, on Maui in 2004.

The farms were described in the complaint as “joint employers” with Global Horizon of Thai nationals who were brought to America under an H2A visa program that allows farmers who have trouble finding local labor to import guest workers.

One worker was named in each section of the indictment that covered each farm, saying he had filed a complaint against the farm under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. (This is the first time any of the alleged Thai victims were named. In the criminal indictment they were listed only by initials.)

“Global – often with the help of the agricultural companies and farms with which it contracted – subjected the claimants to different terms and conditions of employment and engaged in a pattern or practice of such acts based on claimants’ Thai national origin or Asian race,” the civil complaint said.

The EEOC said Global charged exorbitant recruiting fees, then harassed or intimidated the workers. Workers, the complaint says, either were not paid or were not paid enough, or were not given enough hours to make it possible to repay fees.

They were threatened with arrest, deportation or violence if they complained.

Their housing, provided by Global on Maui, according to information from Maui Pine employees last year, was often substandard. Although the complaint did not say which allegations applied to which locations, allegedly some of the workers were placed in housing without electricity, heat or water or sufficient food; but with insects and rats. Some of it, said Ferrell, was “unfit for human habitation.”

Benjamin said that on Kauai, Kauai Coffee transferred pay, plus a fee, to Global, which was to pay the workers.

“The housing we provided to the Thai workers was inspected by OSHA and certified as meeting the government-required living conditions/standards and regulations,” he said. “The housing was within walking distance to our headquarters and factory.

“The Thai workers had no restrictions outside of work hours. 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.”

Guards patrolled to keep the workers isolated and in some cases beat them, the EEOC and Department of Justice say.

Global also confiscated passports and identification, which prevented them from working or even moving about if they eluded their guards.

Vincenty said some who were threatened with deportation were deported. She is in discussions to possibly represent some workers who are now in Thailand.

Other workers have found places on what she called “good farms.” Benjamin said two Thais brought in by Global have since been hired by Kauai Coffee directly and “have since obtained work clearances.”

Global’s chief, Mordechai “Motty” Orian, is himself facing deportation. Vincenty said he faces a hearing in Los Angeles in May, although if a previously ordered deportation is confirmed, she expects it would be stayed until after the criminal trial.

Orian, described last year as a resident of Santa Monica, Calif., has recently been living in the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu, she said.

The complaint says Del Monte engaged in prohibited practices at least as early as 2003, earlier than the other farms. It says Maui Pine and Kauai Coffee began participating in the Global Horizon abuses by 2004.

By statute, the EEOC is capped in the amount of lost wages it can seek to recover for the workers, but it can seek and is seeking punitive damages and an injunction to prevent the defendants from continuing violations and to require them to institute policies providing equal employment opportunities for workers of Thai or Asian background.

A jury trial is demanded. The similar complaint against the Mainland farms was filed in a Mainland district court.

Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, said her organization first received a report of abuse from a worker who escaped from a farm in Hawaii in 2003.

On one farm in Hawaii, workers were so hungry they ate the leaves of plants behind an abandoned schoolhouse where they slept, she said. Workers also were housed in a freight container, where wooden shelves were used as beds.

Not named is Aloun Farms on Oahu, already subject to several enforcement actions for involuntary servitude of migrant farm workers. Vincenty said she was puzzled that Aloun was not included in the Hawaii complaint, since it also used Global Horizon.

After 100 days of continuous work at Maui Pine, the workers should have come under the jurisdiction of the ILWU labor agreement, but Local 142 Division Director Willie Kennison said last year that the union had little contact with the Thai workers.

Ferrell said the EEOC is authorized to take enforcement action against unions as well as employers, but that nothing is alleged against any union in the complaint.

Simultaneously, with the Global Horizon case, the EEOC announced an action in Birmingham, Ala., against Signal International, a marine services company.

It alleges that at least 500 Indian welders and pipefitters at its Mississippi and Texas locations were put in segregated facilities, discriminated against, forced to “live in Signal’s substandard, unsanitary accommodations, for which they were charged an inordinate amount, given unwholesome food, demeaned by being referred to by numbers instead of their names, and at least two of them were retaliated against for complaining about the substandard conditions and discrimination.”

“The mistreatment of workers alleged in these cases is intolerable in our legal system,” said Jacqueline Berrien, chairwoman of the EEOC.

* Harry Eagar can be reached at heagar@mauinews.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: MauiNews.com, “Hawaii farms facing lawsuit over laborers from Thailand” by Harry Eagar, Staff Writer (heagar@mauinews.com), The Maui News and The Associated Press contributed to this report., 21 Apr 2011.

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