The owners of Aloun Farms say they know the 44 workers they imported from Thailand in 2004 were lied to in order to get them to sign worthless labor contracts and that the workers each paid exorbitant recruitment fees to get the jobs.
But brothers Alec Souphone Sou, president and general manager of the farm, and Mike Mankone Sou, vice president and operations manager, say they did not receive any of the recruitment fee money and are not the ones who lied to the workers.
Because they had previously signed documents admitting that they did lie to the workers, a federal judge rejected their plea agreements yesterday and scheduled trial for November. Each brother faces one count of conspiracy to commit forced labor and two counts of exploiting the Thai workers.
The plea agreements had promised the Sous prison sentences of no more than five years.
The federal prosecutor in the case said the Sous may now face additional charges because when they pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in January, the government was about to obtain an updated grand jury indictment against them alleging more crimes.
In the plea agreements they signed in front of a U.S. magistrate judge in January, Alec and Mike Sou admitted that, as part of the conspiracy to commit forced labor, they told the workers when they arrived in Hawaii in September 2004 that the contracts they signed to work on the farm were just pieces of paper. They then paid the workers wages that were less than what the contracts promised.
They also told the workers they would send them back to Thailand if they were disobedient, failed to follow directions or tried to leave, knowing the workers would have no means of paying off the debts they incurred to pay the recruitment fees.
The Sous also admitted in their plea agreements that several workers received little or no net pay because of charges deducted from their earnings.
The Sous imported the workers here under the U.S. Labor Department’s guest worker program, which mandates that the employer is responsible for, among other things, paying for the workers’ plane fare and other transportation and for paying them a specified hourly rate higher than the minimum wage. The program also prohibits employers from collecting recruitment fees.
The Sous admit they did not pay for the workers’ plane fare.
In a previous court hearing, the Sous said they did not threaten any of the workers but gave them the option of leaving the farm when they learned they would not be earning what they were promised. Most did leave when their visas expired after six months, but some continued to work on the farm.
In court yesterday, Alec Sou’s lawyer, Howard Luke, said the deductions from the workers’ wages were legitimate. And he said the workers themselves authorized sending a portion of their wages to Thailand to pay off the mortgages they took out on their family homes and property to pay the recruitment fees.
Luke also said it was Matee Chowsanitphon, a broker from California who was charged separately from the Sous and who became a government witness, who told the Thai workers that the contracts they signed guaranteeing them a certain wage for up to three and a half years were just pieces of paper.
Chowsanitphon pleaded guilty last year to visa fraud and was later sentenced to five years’ probation.
Luke also took exception with prosecutors describing the living quarters for some of the workers as deplorable. He said some of the workers did live in shipping containers on the farm that were not government-approved. But he said the containers had been modified to include windows, doors and air conditioning to turn them into modular homes.
The workers were trapped on the farm, forced to choose between long hours with low wages and an unpromising future in Thailand, former farm worker Somporn Khanja, who arrived at the farm in 2004, told the Associated Press.
"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 praised 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 that 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, watermelons, beans, eggplant, cabbage and pumpkins.
Human trafficking opponents say the Sous 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.
"This is America, and that kind of thing should not be allowable," Kathryn Xian, spokeswoman for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery in Honolulu, told the Associated Press. "They’re basically ripping off the American way of life and exploiting it to the ultimate worst."
Federal indictments were issued last week 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.
The brothers have steadily grown in prominence since their parents started the farm in 1977. After starting with a 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.