The owners of Aloun Farms withdrew their guilty pleas to conspiring to commit forced labor this morning after a federal judge rejected their plea agreements.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou are now scheduled to go on trial in November on charges that they allegedly exploited 44 workers imported from Thailand in 2004.
They could face more charges because the federal prosecutor said the Sous had pleaded guilty on the eve of a new indictment alleging additional crimes.
Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the plea deal because the brothers disputed some of the facts in the human trafficking case.
They had faced up to five years in prison under the agreement that was thrown out.
The Sous admitted to violations of the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, but they deny withholding passports and threatening deportation.
The Sous had asked for a lighter sentence with little or no jail time based in part on the idea that their farm is too valuable to the islands’ food supply to let it go untended.
The brothers were convicted of shipping 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their farm, part of a pipeline to the United States that allegedly cornered foreign field hands into low-paying jobs with few rights.
"The incarceration of Alec and Mike Sou would threaten our food security and could endanger our future sustainability on Oahu," wrote Kioni Dudley, president of the community group Friends of Makakilo, in a letter asking U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway for leniency. "Find some method of punishment which allows them to stay in their positions at Aloun Farms."
Prosecutors accuse them of manipulating the Thai workers by promising at least a year’s employment at pay of $9.42 an hour, but instead delivering only a few months of work for little pay.
If the workers complained, Mike Sou threatened to send them home without any way to repay recruitment fees exceeding $20,000 that they borrowed from Thai money lenders to pay for their jobs, federal authorities claim.
The workers were trapped on the farm, forced to choose between long hours with low wages and an unpromising future in Thailand, said former farm worker Somporn Khanja, who arrived at the farm in 2004.
"I’d been lied to, but I couldn’t do anything about it," the 45-year-old Khanja said through his wife, acting as an interpreter. "I hope justice is being done. I believe in American law. It takes so long, but it’s good. In America, we have to wait."
In about 120 letters to the judge supporting the Sou brothers, community members praise their importance to Hawaii’s agriculture industry, their ability to provide up to 200 jobs at a time and their character.
Former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano called the Sou family’s immigration from Laos and creation of a farm a "remarkable success story." Former Democratic Gov. John Waihee commended the Sous’ skill in transforming sugar fields into diversified farming.
Others who offered support to the brothers include the former head of the state Land Board, the state Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Foodbank, competing farms, two banks who are owed money from the farms and former Aloun employees.
The Kapolei-based company grows a variety of foods including cantaloupe, lettuce, zucchini, apples, bananas, parsley, onions, watermelon, beans, eggplant, cabbage and pumpkin. Alec Sou is the farm’s president and general manager, and Mike Sou is its vice president and operations manager.
Human trafficking opponents say they deserve more than a slap on the wrist for enticing foreign workers with pledges of steady work and then revoking that offer after the laborers were already indebted and flown to the United States.
Federal authorities and some of the workers also have said they were housed in cramped mobile storage containers, told not to leave the farm after work and denied any pay at all for months. The Sous contested those allegations.
"This is America, and that kind of thing should not be allowable," said Kathryn Xian, spokeswoman for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery in Honolulu. "They’re basically ripping off the American way of life and exploiting it to the ultimate worst."
The brothers acknowledge they failed to pay for the workers’ airfare as required by the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, and that employment contracts called for employment exceeding allowable time granted to foreign workers, according to court documents.
But they deny refusing to return passports, telling employees their contracts "were just a piece of paper used to deceive the federal government" and threatening deportation.
"Our people got caught up in something which they admit to. They wish they hadn’t done this, and they’re sorry for getting involved," said defense attorney Eric Seitz, who represents Mike Sou. "Nobody was tortured, nobody was abused, nobody was physically threatened in any manner."
Crackdowns on labor importation crimes are growing, as shown by last week’s federal indictment against employees of Los Angeles-based labor recruiting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc., which the FBI says is the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history.
Global Horizons is accused of enticing 400 workers from Thailand to U.S. farms based on false promises of lucrative jobs. Instead, recruiters allegedly confiscated the workers’ passports, disregarded employment contracts and threatened deportation — claims similar to those in the Aloun Farms case.
Nationwide, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked to the United States annually, according to an estimate by HumanTrafficking.org, which is managed by the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development, which works to improve global education, health and social and economic development.
The brothers have steadily grown in prominence since their parents started the farm in 1977. After starting with a small 5-acre plot of land, the Sous have since extended their growing capacity and crops.
Today, the farm’s 3,000 acres are the most productive in the islands. In Hawaii’s mild climate, they grow crops year-round.
The Sou family also has made political contributions, and Alec Sou sits on boards for homeless advocates and for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.