A federal agency contends hundreds of Thai workers hired by a contractor were mistreated
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 21, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 10:28 p.m. HST, Apr 23, 2011
Federal authorities have filed a civil lawsuit accusing six Hawaii farms of "unlawful employment practices" in association with federally indicted farm labor contractor Global Horizons Manpower Inc.
Global Horizons' owner and employees are already facing several forced labor criminal charges in what's been called the most sweeping labor prosecution in U.S. history, but no farms were implicated in the crimes.
However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges that supervisors from the six island farms and two others in Washington state were "engaged in, and more importantly knew of, or should have known that this was going on, and took no action to remedy it."
The Hawaii farms are Captain Cook Coffee Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Co. Inc., Kelena Farms Inc., Mac Farms of Hawaii LLC and Maui Pineapple Co. The lawsuits were filed Tuesday in Hawaii and Washington.
Global Horizons is also named in the lawsuit. In Washington state, the two farms charged are Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards.
Aloun Farms, named in the federal indictment against Global Horizons, was not implicated in the EEOC lawsuit. Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou still face separate federal forced labor charges in a case unrelated to Global Horizons.
When asked why Aloun Farms was omitted, EEOC supervisory trial attorney Michael Farrell said, "Based on the information that we had, we named the defendants that we felt we could hold liable in a lawsuit."
The EEOC will represent a class of hundreds of Thai workers. The lawsuit alleges that from 2003 to 2007, Global Horizons enticed Thai male nationals into working at farms with false promises of high-paying agricultural jobs with temporary visas.
Global Horizons charged high recruitment fees (up to $26,500) that created oppressive debt for the low-wage workers, whose passports were confiscated, the suit contends. The workers were threatened with deportation, and were placed in "deplorable" living conditions, the suit says. The workers were recruited through the federal H-2A guest worker program.
The lawsuit seeks anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 for compensatory and punitive damages for each worker, depending on the size of the company.
"On top of that, we will be entitled to seek actual economic losses, such as back pay, that is not subjected to the (federal statutory) cap," Farrell said.
Farrell said he believes the EEOC will be able to win enough money for the workers, even though the farms may be going through difficult economic times, or in the case of Maui Pineapple's parent, undergoing restructuring. Maui Pineapple ceased its pineapple operations last year.
"If someone has gone through a corporate restructuring or someone was sold to a successor corporation, or has somehow remorphed themselves into something with a different name, we will discover that in litigation," Farrell said.
A phone number provided by Global Horizons for media calls was not in service yesterday.
Alexander & Baldwin Inc., which owned Kauai Coffee Co. during the period of the alleged mistreatment, said the lawsuit is "sensationalized" and not based on fact. A&B still owns the farm's 3,000 acres. A&B claims it made multiple requests to the EEOC to identify specific acts of wrongdoing, but that it received no information.
"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," said the firm's head of agribusiness, Christopher J. Benjamin.
"We have never been informed by any of the workers from Thailand, any governmental authority, or anyone else, that the Thai workers experienced any mistreatment while at Kauai Coffee."
Benjamin said the company paid each worker a wage rate established by the U.S. Department of Labor, plus an administrative fee for Global Horizons, and provided housing inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He said 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," Benjamin said.
Captain Cook Coffee owner Steve Mclaughlin declined comment until he had seen the lawsuit.
Del Monte Fresh Produce, with a Florida legal office, was unavailable for comment.
MacFarms of Hawaii said new owners purchased the company in 2008.
MacFarms' former owner, based in Tennessee, was unavailable for comment.
Maui Pineapple Co. Ltd. , also known as Maui Pineapple Farms, was contacted but did not return the call.
Contact information for Kelena Farms could not be found.
Negotiations, called a conciliation process, between the EEOC, Global Horizons and the farms occurred before the lawsuit was filed, as is required, Farrell said.
Through the process, the EEOC tells companies what kind of remedies are believed necessary whether monetary, policy or training, he said. The EEOC also recommends what it thinks is appropriate, Farrell said.
Local attorney Clare Hanusz, who represents dozens of the Thai nationals who worked in Hawaii, said she was surprised to hear of the EEOC lawsuit, and that one of her clients was named in it.
"As the attorney representing this particular individual, I find it really disturbing that I wasn't informed of this," Hanusz said yesterday. "I know that he has had no contact with the EEOC in years. … Victims in Aloun Farms have made complaints to EEOC as well, and we have the documentation and dates from 2007."
Hanusz questioned why the EEOC filed this lawsuit years after the initial complaints were made. She said the victims saw no follow-up from the EEOC, which was the reason why many of them were hesitant in coming forward to other government agencies.
"It seemed like a huge waste of their time," she said. "If the EEOC can use its powers to help get compensation for these victims who desperately need it, fantastic. I wish them all the luck in the world. I wish it happened a few years ago."
Farrell said the scope of the investigation, which covered several jurisdictions, and the conciliation process meant a long road toward filing the lawsuit.
Hanusz said if the cases were brought forth years ago, there would have been more opportunity to recoup more costs for the victims since the companies may have been more financially stable, particularly Global Horizons, which has spent the past several months defending itself from federal charges.
"The cases seemed like they were put on a back shelf," Hanusz said. "Now after the FBI investigation and the Department of Justice prosecution, I think all the agencies are playing catch-up. But I wish they would've taken the lead early on."
Star-Advertiser reporter Gary T. Kubota contributed to this report.