Agriculture relies on foreign workers, but the firms that supply them face scrutiny
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 13, 2010
Recent high-profile federal cases in Hawaii alleging abuse of immigrant farm workers are causing some worry for local farms that rely on foreign labor.
Federal data show Hawaii farms have become more reliant in recent years on the H-2A temporary agricultural program, which brings in workers from foreign countries when not enough U.S. workers are available. Last year, there were 268 requests here for H-2A workers, 231 of which were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
OVERSEAS HELPThe H-2A program allows agricultural employers to bring in foreign workers when there is a shortage of U.S. workers.
2008 | H-2A approved
» Bay View Farms: 10
» Bird Feather
» Captain Cook
» Hawaiian Queen Co.: 4
» Haleakala Ranch
» Kapapala Ranch: 1
» Kona Cold Lobsters: 8
» Kona Coffee
» Larry Jefts Farms: 48
» Rincon Family
2008 | Rejected
» Bird Feather
» Precy Nazaire/Hawaii Agricultural Labor Services: 50
» Takenaka Nursery: 5
2009 | H2-A approved
» Bird Feather
» Captain Cook
» Global Ag Labor: 48
» Haleakala Ranch: 1
» Hawaiian Queen Co.: 6
» Kapapala Ranch: 2
» Kona Coffee
» Kona Queen Hawaii: 5
» Larry Jefts Farms: 40
» Richard T. Watanabe Farm: 1
» Waikele Farms: 80
2009 | Rejected
» Bird Feather Hawaii: 3
» Global Ag Labor: 12
» Greenwell Farms: 12
» Kona Queen Hawaii: 2
» Palehua Ohana Farmers Cooperative: 8
Source: U.S. Department of Labor's Foreign Labor Certification Data Center
Across the nation in 2009, 5,177 workers entered the U.S. under the
H-2A program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The problem is supply versus demand.
"If Hawaii is going to increase its agricultural sector, somebody's gonna have to do the work in the fields," said Mae Nakahata, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 1,600 members in the local agricultural industry. "A lot of the local people don't want to do that type of work, so where is that labor going to come from?"
Nakahata said many farms are tiny, family operations that can't handle the workload by themselves.
"A lot of our farmers are dependent on second and third parties to get their labor because they're not large companies," Nakahata said. "They depend on the contractor, and that the contractor is doing its job correctly."
Many local farms relied on Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Los Angeles-based recruiting contractor whose president and associates are now accused in what's been called the largest human trafficking scheme ever prosecuted in the U.S.
Federal investigators allege that Global Horizons, headed by Mordechai Orian, hired Thai workers under false promises of high wages, but later revoked their traveling documents and violated their rights.
The Global Horizons case involves about 400 farmers who passed through Hawaii from May 2004 through September 2005. The case includes 14 farms around the state, including Maui Pineapple Farms, Aloun Farms, Del Monte Hawaii and the Kauai Coffee Co.
None of the farms is being accused of wrongdoing in the case. Aloun Farms' owners face trial in a separate case involving 44 Thai workers who claim to have been abused.
"Local farms are in a tough situation now," said Nakahata. "How do you evaluate whether the contract you're going for is legitimate? We're reaching out to see how we can answer these questions."
Local farms should be doing constant background checks on recruiting companies, watching for complaints filed through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the labor department, said immigration lawyer Bow Mun Chin.
Chin is a senior staff attorney for the Hawaii Immigrant Justice Center, which is assisting 23 of the alleged Global Horizons victims.
Questions about Global Horizon's work reputation arose in 2005 when farms like Kauai Coffee Co. and Del Monte Hawaii were being named in lawsuits filed by workers who went to the EEOC.
Some farms have filed civil lawsuits against Global Horizons, claiming that Global had sole responsibility for paying the workers.
About 140 of the alleged victims of Global Horizons remain in Hawaii. Two of the victims died in the past year, Chin said.
"They don't know how to use our medical system, so they didn't report getting ill and they don't know about getting checkups," Chin said. "Some of these guys have not been able to work. They've been on Medquest."
Farmworker justice, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant farm workers, highlighted Global Horizons in its report on a "litany" of abuses of the H-2A program, released in December 2008.
In 2004 in Washington state, the report said, Global Horizons requested H-2A workers for a farm even though there was plenty of U.S. help available.
Although more than 1,000 U.S. workers sought jobs, Global Horizons hired only 166, according to a 2005 discontinuation of service letter from Washington's Employment Security Department to Global management. Workers there said they were interviewed and told they had a job, but were not told when and where to show up for work, so the company was able to claim it did not have enough U.S. workers.
That allowed the company to fill the remaining spots with foreign labor, which makes farming much more lucrative.
During the Bush administration, the United Farm Workers union accused the U.S. Department of Labor of failing to enforce and comply with the approval process.
The union also warned against changes that President George W. Bush implemented in 2009 that reduced oversight.
"Given the highly exploitative and precarious nature of a guest worker, where their ability to remain legally in the U.S. is entirely dependent on the good will of their employer, we fully expect to see a widespread deterioration of working and living conditions for farm workers across the U.S. if these changes go into effect," said the union.
In March, the H-2A program underwent significant changes when the Obama administration raised wages and strengthened protections for foreign workers. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis restored the role of state work force agencies that would conduct site inspections of the farms, including housing for the workers.
The federal labor
department also launched an online H-2A public job registry, which provides public access to job orders. It was part of the department's Employment and Training Administration's Open Government Initiative.
Farmworker Justice and the United Farm Workers also are advocating a legislative remedy in the form of a bill that has languished in Congress in recent years: the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act.
The AgJOBS bill would allow employers to provide a housing allowance instead of housing, and it would strengthen transportation safety standards.
Currently, H-2A workers are excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983, which provides workers with protections and remedies in federal court.
The AgJOBS bill would provide an avenue for remedies, allowing workers to file federal lawsuits to enforce wages, housing benefits, transportation cost reimbursements, minimum-work guarantees, vehicle safety protections and other terms in the job offer.
It would also empower the workers to speak out against their employer. Many of the workers in Hawaii feared
retaliation from their employer, said local immigration lawyer Melissa Vincenty, who with attorney Clare Hanusz helped bring the Global Horizons case to federal attention.
The Hawaii case began when two men hired through Global Horizons sought social services from the Susannah Wesley Community Center. A worker there recognized signs of human trafficking and contacted Vincenty and Hanusz, who then contacted the FBI.
"All these guys have been undocumented," Vincenty said. "Their visas had run out. Some of the guys escaped, and some were let go."
Currently the victims are obtaining some social services through a federal victims coordinator. The federal government has been issuing special temporary visas to workers recognized as victims of trafficking.
Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., a nonprofit community action agency, is also offering up federally funded job training and employment assistance for the victims.
Vincenty represents 62 of the workers, and expects 25 of them will receive green cards within next year.
"Most of them haven't seen their families for six or seven years," she said.
"There have been divorces, separations."
Some of the workers obtained special permission to return to Thailand temporarily, said Chin and Vincenty.
It's an emotional journey that's far from over, Vincenty said.
"During the interviews with the FBI, it was the first time they got to speak about their experience," Vincenty said. "I was crying myself. There's a lot of emotional layers to this. Any one of us can imagine how hard it is to be separated from our family."