Six recruiters have been accused of luring 400 Thai laborers to the United States and forcing them to work, according to a US federal indictment that the FBI has called the largest ever human-trafficking case in US history.
The indictment alleges that four employees of labour recruitment firm Global Horizons Manpower Inc. and two Thailand-based recruiters orchestrated the scheme. It states the recruiters lured the workers to the US with false promises of lucrative jobs, then confiscated their passports, failed to honour their employment contracts and threatened to deport them.
Once the labourers arrived in the US starting in May 2004, they were put to work and have since been sent to farms in states including Hawaii, Washington, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah, according to attorneys and advocates.
Many labourers were initially taken to farms in Hawaii and Washington, where working conditions were the worst, said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Thai Community Development Centre, which represents the 263 Thai workers who were brought to the US by Global Horizons.
The indictment said:
“The object of the conspiracy was to obtain cheap, compliant labour, indebted by the defendants’ recruitment fees, and to compel the workers’ labour and service through threats to have the workers arrested, deported, or sent back to Thailand.”
The workers were in the United States under the federal H2-A visa programme, which places foreign workers on US farms. The case was investigated by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI in Honolulu, where many of the guest workers wound up.
The six defendants include Global Horizons president and CEO Mordechai Orian, 45, of Beverly Hills; director of international relations Pranee Tubchumpol, 44; Hawaii regional supervisor Shane Germann, 41; and onsite field supervisor Sam Wongsesanit, 39. The Thailand recruiters were identified as Ratawan Chunharutai and Podjanee Sinchai.
If convicted, Mr Orian and Ms Tubchumpol each face maximum sentences of 70 years in prison, Mr Ratawan faces a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison, Mr Germann and Mr Wongsesanit each face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and Ms Podjanee, who was recently charged in Thailand with multiple counts of recruitment fraud, faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Two were arrested on Thursday morning in Los Angeles and Fargo, North Dakota, said FBI special agent Tom Simon.
Another Global Horizons employee was expected to turn himself in, and the US will work with the Thai government to apprehend the remaining two suspects.
The indictment also alleges that the defendants confined Thai workers at Maui Pineapple Farm and demanded an additional fee of US$3,750 (116,868 baht) from them to keep their jobs with Global Horizons.
Global Horizons recruits workers from foreign countries through the U.S. Department of Labor H-2A guest worker program to work on U.S. farms, including properties in four Hawaii counties.
Company officials targeted impoverished Thai nationals, who earned about $1,000 a year in their home country, the indictment said. They were promised three years of employment and high wages ranging from $8.72 an hour to $2,000 a month for eight hours of work a day, according to the indictment.
Company officials then required the workers to pay substantial recruitment fees, from $9,500 to $21,000, to get jobs, the indictment said. The company also secured deeds to family land in Thailand as collateral.
Unable to pay that debt, workers faced threats of deportation and property foreclosures if they did not work, the indictment said. The company confiscated their passports and visas to restrict their movement while in the U.S.
Global Horizon officials allegedly profited from the contracts, receiving portions of the recruitment fees as well as commissions Hawaii farms paid to get workers.
The FBI said some of the workers have gone back to Thailand, while others remain in Hawaii and the mainland, including Washington state.
The following are the six people accused in the trafficking conspiracy, and the status of their arrest.
» Mordechai Orian, 45, is an Israeli national and president and chief executive officer of Global Horizons Manpower Inc. The FBI attempted to execute an arrest warrant at his Los Angeles home yesterday morning, but he was not there. The FBI contacted Orian by phone, and is negotiating his surrender to authorities.
» Pranee Tubchumpol, 44, is director of international relations for Global Horizons. She surrendered to the FBI yesterday morning in Los Angeles.
» Shane Germann, 41, was an on-site manager for several farms supplied by Global Horizons. He surrendered to the FBI in Fargo, N.D., yesterday morning.
» Sam Wongsesanit, 39, is a Kona resident and was a field supervisor for various farms, including Maui Pineapple Farms. He is expected to surrender to the FBI next week.
» Ratawan Chunharutai is the owner and managing director of AACO International Recruitment Co., a Thai labor recruiting company that worked with Global Horizons. She is considered a fugitive and is believed to be in Thailand.
» Podjanee Sinchai is a Thai labor recruiter who operated a recruiting agency, Podjanee International Co. She is considered a fugitive and is believed to be in Thailand.
Some of the workers contacted nongovernmental organizations and immigration attorneys, who then got the FBI involved. Federal agents investigated the case in 2008, but took two years to bring the case to court because of its international implications, Simon said.
There were 14 agricultural properties that used the services of these workers, but none has been charged in this case.
“The FBI is attempting to learn the extent that these farms were aware of the forced labor conditions of its workers,” Simon said. “With few exceptions, the farms have been cooperating with our investigation.”
One of those exceptions, federal investigators confirmed, is Aloun Farms. Proprietors of the Ewa farm face years in federal prison for conspiring to commit forced labor in connection with the importation of 44 farm workers from Thailand in 2004.
Brothers Alec and Mike Sou, owners of Aloun Farms, pleaded guilty in January and will be sentenced next week.
The indictment also said Global Horizon confined workers to the property of the now-defunct Maui Pineapple Farm, posting guards to prevent the workers from running away.
Two of the defendants strung yellow tape around the Maui Pineapple housing area and installed bells on string lines in the woods to alert guards of escape attempts, according to the indictment.
The defendants are scheduled to appear Thursday in U.S. District Court in Hawaii.
Global Horizons has been in and out of court fighting labor complaints throughout the U.S. and Hawaii.
On Tuesday, the Kauai Coffee Co. filed a lawsuit against Global Horizons. The two companies entered into an H-2A agreement for workers from Thailand in 2004.
Since 2006, 17 people have filed worker discrimination complaints against Kauai Coffee Co. through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 15 of whom filed through the Honolulu office.
Kauai Coffee denies the allegations, but has had to defend itself against the EEOC charges, racking up attorneys’ fees and associated court costs. Kauai Coffee claims in its lawsuit that Global Horizons should be defending the charges on its behalf.
An attorney representing Kauai Coffee declined comment yesterday, citing the continuing case.
In 2008, Florida-based Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., which operates in Hawaii, filed a similar lawsuit in Circuit Court against Global Horizons, alleging a breach of contract. Del Monte faces 28 charges from the U.S. EEOC.
Del Monte alleges that Global Horizons breached a 2003 contract by “failing to pay the temporary production workers.”
“Subsequent to Global Horizons’ conduct, Del Monte Hawaii had a difficult time obtaining employees for that facility through other temporary agencies and has had its reputation injured due to the allegations of discrimination,” the lawsuit states.
In May 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered Global Horizons to pay about $300,000 in fines and back wages for deceiving and underpaying 88 Thai workers hired to harvest onions and pineapples in Hawaii.