UPDATED 10/20/11 12 p.m.
A federal grand jury in Honolulu has indicted six people for conspiring to keep more than 600 Thai immigrants1 as indentured laborers on farms in Hawaii, Washington, New York and other states.
“This is the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history,” said FBI Special Agent Tom Simon, who is based in Honolulu.
According to an indictment unsealed today, the defendants worked with labor recruiters in Thailand and enticed the Thai nationals to come to the U.S. with false promises of lucrative jobs. Many of the workers went into debt and put their family homes up as collateral in order to pay large recruitment fees. Nearly all of the 400 alleged victims were forced to work on farms in Hawaii before being moved to farms in Washington state.
The indictment covers the period from May 2004 through September 2005. The workers were brought into the country legally under the U.S. agricultural guest worker program. About a dozen Hawaii farms were involved, though none has been charged, Simon said.
“We’re trying to determine the extent that each farm in Hawaii was aware this was occurring,” he said.
Immigration lawyers and non-governmental organizations in Hawaii brought the case to the FBI in Honolulu in 2008, Simon said. Today’s five-count indictment was the result of a two-year investigation.
These developments come one week before sentencing in another major Hawaii human trafficking case. Alec and Mike Sou, owners of the well-known Aloun Farms in Kapolei, pleaded guilty in January of conspiring to commit forced labor involving 44 Thai workers. They were supposed to be sentenced in July, but after a dramatic five-hour hearing during which they appeared to backpedal on their guilty charges, the judge postponed their sentencing to Sept. 9.
At the center of today’s indictment is Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Los Angeles, Calif.-based labor-recruiting firm that had already been in the news for providing inexpensive labor to now-defunct Maui Pineapple Co.*
An earlier version of this story stated that case involved 400 Thai immigrants. That number has since been revised to 600 workers.
Global Horizons employees charged in the conspiracy included owner and chief executive officer Mordechai Orian, an Israeli national from Los Angeles. The 45-year-old was negotiating his surrender with FBI officials this afternoon. Pranee Tubchumpol, 44, was the company’s director of international relations. She was arrested in Los Angeles this morning. Shane Germann, 41, was an onsite farm manager and a regional supervisor for Hawaii farms. He surrendered to authorities in Fargo, North Dakota. Sam Wongsesanit, a resident of Kona, Hawaii, will surrender in court on Tuesday. Wongsesanit, 38, was an onsite supervisor at several farms, including Maui Pineapple.
Thai labor recruiters Ratawan Chunharutai and Podjanee Sinchai — both women — were also named in the indictment but have not been taken into custody and are considered fugitives, said Simon.
If convicted, Orian and Tubchumpol each face maximum sentences of 70 years in prison; Chunharutai faces up to 65 years in prison; Germann and Wongsesanit face up to 10 years in prison. Sinchai, who was recently charged in Thailand with multiple counts of recruitment fraud, faces up to five years in prison if she is convicted in the U.S.
The indictment alleges that the victims were impoverished Thai nationals who earned roughly $1,000 annually in Thailand. False promises of high wages and up to three years of employment prompted the workers to pay recruiters hefty fees ranging from $9,500 to $21,000 to secure them jobs in the U.S. Most of the fees were pocketed by the defendants, according to the indictment.
Once the workers got to the U.S., the defendants allegedly confiscated their passports and didn’t pay them what they were promised. Tubchumpol allegedly told workers on several occasions that they were not allowed to leave their housing location or to talk with other Thais outside of the farm without fear of arrest and deportation.
One worker, identified as “B.K.” in the indictment, stated that Wongsesanit conducted a nightly roll call at Maui Pineapple Farm to make sure no workers had run away. Wongsesanit also allegedly told B.K. and others not to socialize with outsiders or complain — he had a gun and would shoot them. The Maui Pineapple workers were also allegedly told to pay an additional fee of $3,750 to keep their jobs with Global Horizons.
Exact numbers detailing the extent of human trafficking in Hawaii are not available. It’s worth noting that human trafficking and civil rights rank as the FBI’s fourth priority in Hawaii following international terrorism, foreign counterintelligence and political corruption.
“There are more people held in forced labor today than when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Simon said. “As long as this is the case, the FBI will continue to investigate human trafficking to bring these people to justice.”
In a recent interview with Civil Beat, Simon and Special Agent Gary Brown, who investigates human trafficking cases, said human trafficking is an issue in Hawaii in part because of its proximity to the Far East. What usually happens, they said, is that, as in this case, workers come on legitimate visas but once they’re in the country there’s a bait and switch and they don’t get the wages they were promised.
“With farming, it’s always a false promise of money,” Brown said. The traffickers use fear of what might happen to family members back home to keep workers from revealing what’s happened to them.
The case will be tried by Susan French and Kevonne Small of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division and Susan Cushman of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Hawaii.