Abuse, Dept. of Labor, Employers & Employment, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Harassment, Health & Safety, Law Enforcement, Litigation, Work Hazards, Working Conditions

Notice: Man to Alter Plea in Employee Abuse Case

From MauiNews.com, Harry Eagar, Staff Writer (heagar@mauinews.com) 26 Apr 2011.

Indictment: Thai nationals were held under threat in substandard housing

The man who was the labor supervisor for Global Horizons on Maui in 2004 and 2005 is expected to plead guilty next month in U.S. District Court in Honolulu to charges related to document servitude and abuse of immigrant farmworkers, according to a notice of a change of plea filed in federal court.

Shane Germann was arrested last year in North Dakota after the managers of labor recruitment firm Global Horizons were indicted in what is being called the biggest agricultural labor trafficking case in American history.

A superseding grand jury indictment filed Jan. 12 gives more details about how Thai workers were allegedly threatened and imprisoned. It says Global Horizons paid cash for a Piper Aztec plane to fly workers between farms in Hawaii, including Maui Pineapple Co., where several dozen Thai nationals were employed.

Another Global Horizons supervisor, Bruce Schwartz, who worked primarily in Washington state, pleaded guilty last month in a plea bargain that could bring him a sentence of five years, perhaps to be reduced when he cooperates with authorities.

The notice of change of plea, from not guilty to guilty, by Germann does not say whether he is cooperating with authorities.

Germann is scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway on May 4.

Although authorities allege the Thai workers were kept isolated and threatened with being beaten, deported or shot if they talked to outsiders, the indictment suggests that at least some Maui people knew something of what was going on. It says Global hired “five or six” guards to keep the workers from running away here.

At one point, the government alleges, the guards put yellow crime scene tape around the worker housing and strung up bells to alert them if any workers tried to escape “through the woods.” The exact location of this worker housing has not been specified, but a separate civil lawsuit filed last week by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges that Global Horizons recruits were kept in substandard housing in various places around the country, sometimes without water, electricity or adequate food.

The workers were shuttled from place to place, the indictment says. On commercial flights, the workers had to show identification to board. Global Horizons employees like Germann allegedly issued passports to the workers to get them past Transportation Security Administration scrutiny, then confiscated the passports when they arrived. This control of movement is called document servitude.

Using the twin-engine Piper Aztec allowed Global to move workers around without having to undergo TSA examination. On other occasions, the indictment says, the plane was used to ferry passports from one island to another.

At least 45 flights were made among the Hawaiian Islands as part of the scheme, authorities allege. The government is seeking to have the plane forfeited.

Schwartz’s plea agreement, which was accepted last month, admits he conspired to force the labor of guest workers.

Threats of serious harm or physical constraint were used, authorities allege. Also, the impoverished workers were trapped in a kind of debt peonage, in which they owed so much money to Global that they had no chance of paying it off.

Some pledged family land in Thailand to guarantee recruitment fees of up to 800,000 bhat, about $20,000. The government says their families typically had incomes in Thailand of only $1,000 a year.

The men were promised better pay and plenty of hours in America, but they complained – after finally reaching authorities – that their pay was delayed or that they were not given as many hours as promised.

The indictment says the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok raised concerns as early as 2004 about excessive labor recruitment fees.

That came in a meeting with Schwartz and another Global employee, Pranee Tubchumpol, and American diplomats and representatives of the Thailand Department of Labor.

There is no indication that the embassy alerted the U.S. Department of Labor to its alarm. The indictment says Schwartz, before he became a Global employee, stole stationery from a California farm and used it to falsely certify to labor officials that the farm had need of hundreds of guest workers, so that the department would issue H2A visas.

The narrative says that some Thais picked peppers in Arizona but then were shuttled to farms in Mississippi, California, Washington, Hawaii and other places.

Schwartz admitted he worked for Global from March 2003 to December 2006 as an “onsite supervisor.”

In Yakima, Wash., Schwartz and guards surrounded 80 workers in an apartment to keep them from running away, authorities allege.

The workers faced double trouble. Some had pledged family land in Thailand, and if they fled Global or were returned to Thailand by Global (as some were), they could not repay their loans in Thailand.

Some of those loans, allegedly, were in the hands of Thai loan sharks, so workers in America were fearful of crossing Global lest the Thai enforcers retaliate against their relatives.

Schwartz admitted Global officials told Thai recruits they could be guaranteed three years of work, although they knew the temporary H2A visas were seasonal and limited to 10 months.

The grand jury alleges that Global began recruiting farmers in 2001 at grower conferences in Arizona and New Mexico and sent postcards across the country to seek contracts, offering to supply labor and oversee housing, transportation, visas, management and logistics for the farms.

The Hawaii farms have generally not had much to say about their connection to Global, although Kauai Coffee said last week that that was its arrangement: It paid Global an amount based on the workers’ hourly pay plus a commission, and Global managed the workers.

That would be largely Germann, described as a regional supervisor who reported to Schwartz and Global owner Mordechai Orion, an Israeli national who is resisting deportation and has yet to be tried on the labor trafficking charges.

According to the indictment, Global first supplied Thai workers to pick peppers in July 2002. It appears that Global extended its reach to Hawaii shortly after that.

Some chili pickers were then sent to Aloun Farms on Oahu, where they were housed in shipping containers “with no carpet, beds, furniture, indoor plumbing, kitchen or air conditioning,” according to federal documents.

In the summer of 2004, workers were sent to Maui, where, the indictment says, a Global employee, Joseph Knoller, told them not to escape because a worker who had escaped earlier “had been shot.”

On Maui, the indictment says, Global employee Sam Wongsesanit told workers not to socialize with outsiders and not to complain. If anyone threatened him, Wongsesanit told them, he had a gun and would shoot them.

Workers said they saw him carrying a small gun in 2005 and 2006 in his waistband.

About 100 Thais were kept on Maui, isolated and with limited freedom of movement, while receiving “irregular and insufficient hours” of work assignments from Maui Pine, the indictment says.

This allegedly went on from mid-2004 to Sept. 14, 2005.

The indictment alleges they then were told they would have to pay an additional 150,000 baht ($3,750) to have their contracts renewed. Otherwise, they would be returned to Thailand.

On Aug. 29, 2005, the grand jury said, a Global employee arrived on Maui and “hired five to six male and female guards to prevent the Maui Pineapple Farm Thai H2A guest workers from running away.”

More guards were hired in September and the workers were kept under around-the-clock watch, the indictment says.

The various Global employees face different charges. Germann is accused of forcing a worker to work under threats of harm to him or others and with document servitude by seizing passports.

* Harry Eagar can be reached at heagar@mauinews.com.

Source: MauiNews.com, “Notice: Man to alter plea in employee abuse case” by Harry Eagar,  Staff Writer (heagar@mauinews.com), 26 Apr 2011.

Related article: HawaiiReporter.com, “Global Horizons’ House of Cards ‘Falling One by One by One’” by Malia Zimmerman, 26 Apr 2011.

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