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When 43-year-old Likhit Yoo-On left his life as a farmer in northern Thailand to move to Hawaii in 2005, he thought he was building a better life for himself and his family that stayed behind.
He mortgaged his home, took out a bank loan and borrowed money from relatives to pay a $8,750 recruitment fee to Global Horizons, a now-defunct California-based labor contracting company. Along with 21 others, he flew to Hawaii and began harvesting bananas at Kelena Farms on Oahu.
The illusion of a better life quickly dissolved. Yoo-On had to sleep on the floor in an apartment he shared with 10 other employees. When he got sick, he still had to work. While he had been told he would earn $9 per hour and work five days a week, he went weeks without work and sometimes his paycheck was so late that he ran out of money to buy food.
On Tuesday, Yoo-On stood before his daughter, lawyers and the news media at the Federal Building in downtown Honolulu, recounting his story as one of hundreds of mistreated Thai farm laborers brought to Hawaii between 2003 and 2007.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held the press conference to announce a $2.4 million settlement with four Hawaii farms in a national origin and race discrimination case involving 500 Thai workers.
As part of Tuesday’s settlement, Mac Farms of Hawaii, LLC will pay $1.6 million to the workers and Kauai Coffee Company Inc., a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin now known as McBryde Resources Inc., will give them $425,000.
Kelena Farms will pay $275,000 and offer 37 full-time jobs to some of the victims, while Captain Cook Coffee Company will pay $100,000 and offer 10 seasonal jobs. The EEOC has promised to monitor the conditions.
The settlements follow the $1.2 million that Del Monte Farm Fresh agreed to pay last fall, and mark another chapter in the multi-year efforts to provide restitution for mistreated Thai laborers.
Civil cases are all that are left of widely publicized failed human trafficking prosecutions. The federal government pursued a human trafficking case against the owners of Aloun Farms but the case was dropped in 2011 because the prosecutor misstated the law. Another criminal case against Global Horizons, which was billed as the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history, similarly collapsed a year later. The EEOC is still pursuing a civil case against Global, but not Aloun.
The EEOC’s lawsuit against the Hawaii farms and Global Horizons says the Thai farm workers were singled out for discrimination because they were considered to be more compliant than people of other ethnicities. Many employees went into debt to pay huge recruitment fees and then their passports were taken away upon entering the U.S.
At the farms, workers were denied adequate food and water. Anna Park, attorney for the EEOC, said some people used rubber bands and rocks to catch birds, or created slingshots to kill chickens for food because they were so hungry.
One worker, 53-year-old Khamjuan Namwichai from eastern Thailand, said Tuesday that he used all his savings to move to Hawaii, where he worked at Maui Pineapple and Mac Farms. He lived in an overcrowded apartment where 26 workers shared one bathroom.
“It was not what I was promised at all,” he said.
The EEOC’s 182-page complaint includes similar stories of workers being forced to live in houses with bugs and broken windows. Laborers at Kauai Coffee Company Inc. didn’t have water or beds while working there, the complaint says. Supervisors threatened workers with deportation and limited where they could go. Conditions were so bad that some ran away.
Despite such testimony, former Global Horizons president Mordechai Orian denied any wrongdoing in a telephone interview with Civil Beat. He implied Tuesday that the Thai laborers aren’t telling the truth in order to remain in the U.S. for longer than their work visas allow.
“People came to Hawaii, had a great time there, worked and were happy,” he said. “They want to get millions, they want to get hundreds of thousands of dollars? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong,” he added.
Although advocates for the Thai workers say the settlement is a step in the right direction, the issue is far from resolved.
The EEOC is still pursuing a case against Maui Pineapple Company. A judge found Global Horizons liable for discrimination earlier this year, and a trial set for Nov. 18 will determine how much the company will pay.
Some also question what can be done for Thai employees who worked at Aloun Farms.
Kathryn Xian, director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, asked EEOC officials Tuesday why the organization hadn’t pursued charges against Aloun Farms.
Xian, who is also a candidate for Congress, said several of her clients filed complaints with the EEOC about their working conditions.
Park replied that various factors, including a time limitation, determine whether charges can be brought.
“If we felt we could, we have brought cases,” Park said. “If we felt we couldn’t, we haven’t.”
Xian said after the meeting that while she still wants justice for her clients at Aloun Farms, Tuesday’s settlements “send a really good message.”
“There’s a lack of accountability in agriculture and not enough enforcement to catch violations,” she said.
As for the victims, many of them have left Hawaii since the discrimination came to light. Some are still paying off their debts, as is the case with Yoo-On.
Nine years after he came to Hawaii, he works at a restaurant on Oahu and is still trying to earn enough to pay back his relatives for the money he borrowed from them.
Despite the financial hardship, he’s relieved that he left life in the fields. He doesn’t have to worry about going hungry anymore, and one day hopes to see his daughter graduate from high school.