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Defendant in Thai forced labor case pleads guilty

One of eight defendants charged in an alleged forced labor scheme that took hundreds of impoverished workers from their native Thailand to farms in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, New York, Utah and Washington pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to conspiracy.

Bruce Schwartz faces a maximum five-year prison term at his scheduled sentencing in September. 

“I’m pleading guilty because I want to make amends to the people I hurt,” he said.

His sentencing date is likely to change because the government expects Schwartz to testify in trial against the other defendants including 45-year-old Mordechai Yosef Orian, owner of labor contracting company Global Horizons Manpower Inc. 

Trial is scheduled for next February and the government wants Schwartz sentenced after he testifies.

Schwartz was the operations manager for Global Horizons and an on-site supervisor at farms using company laborers. 

He admitted yesterday that he continued recruiting workers in Thailand even after he learned they paid exorbitant recruitment fees prohibited under the U.S. Labor Department’s seasonal guest worker program.

“I should have quit and reported it to authorities,” he said.

Schwartz also admitted confiscating Thai workers’ passports when they arrived in the United States and hired a security detail to prevent workers in Yakima, Washington from leaving their apartments. He also admitted falsely representing himself as the labor transaction coordinator for a vegetable farm in Bakersfield, California in a letter asking Global Horizons to provide 250 workers.

He said Orian asked him to provide the letter.

Schwartz wrote the request on stolen farm letterhead, according an indictment a federal grand jury return last month, and that Orian used the fake letter to justify his application with the Labor Department to import Thai workers.

The indictment, an update to one returned last September, said Orian, an Israeli national, Schwartz, five other Global Horizons employees and a labor recruiter in Thailand exploited about 600 farm workers from 2001 to August 2007, holding them in servitude by confiscating their passports, paid them less than promised and threatening to send them back to Thailand when the workers complained about their wages and working conditions.

The workers feared going back to Thailand because they took out loans, backed by their land and homes as collateral, to pay upfront recruitment fees of between $9,500 and $26,500, according to the indictment. And if they didn’t work, they had no way of paying back the loans.

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