After years of investigations and legal battles, a court finds that a U.S. farm labor contractor’s operations were rife with discrimination, abuse and intimidation.
LOS ANGELES — Mordechai “Motty” Orian thought he had found the answer to his agricultural labor contracting problems.
Workers from Thailand that he brought into the United States would be far less likely, he believed, to complain or abscond than those from other countries such as Mexico, China and Nepal, enabling him to meet the labor demands of the growers in Hawaii and Washington state who used the services of his Global Horizons Inc. company.
Between 2003 and 2006, Orian shipped about 1,100 Thai nationals to such employers as Maui Pineapple Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce and Kauai Coffee Co. under the U.S. Department of Labor’s agricultural guest-worker program.
“The Thai people, they are good people, nice people,” Orian has allegedly admitted saying. “And they just follow.” When recruiting workers, he explained, one looks where “you know it’s going to be easier and they’re going to stay on the job … That’s why Thailand.”
Orian, it turns out, may have badly misjudged Thai people.
In April 2006, Laphit Khadthan and Marut Kongpia, two of the Thai farm workers contracted out by Global Horizons, filed charges of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, initiating what the agency has called the largest human trafficking case related to agriculture in U.S. history.
A criminal trafficking indictment against Orian was dismissed in 2012, but, earlier this month, a Hawaii judge found Global Horizons liable for discrimination in a civil lawsuit brought by the EEOC in 2011, saying the company’s managers subjected workers to physical and verbal abuse that included punching some of them in the face, calling them “animals” and providing meals consisting only of rice and a piece of pineapple or a hard-boiled egg.
“The evidence clearly establishes that Global Horizons’ standard operating procedure was to treat the Thai workers less favorably than the non-Thai workers,” U.S. District Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi wrote.
She also found that the company kept workers in check by exploiting the “enormous” debts they incurred to pay recruitment fees and cited Orian’s admissions as evidence that it “acted upon stereotypical beliefs about … the perceived compliant nature of Thai people.”
According to advocates for the workers, recruitment fees were as high as 600,000 Thai baht, or about $18,400. The average wage paid by Global Horizons in Hawaii, the advocates say, was $8 to $9 an hour.
The finding of liability against Global Horizons “vindicates the rights of the multitude of Thai farm workers who survived inhumane abuses and discrimination” and serves as a warning to employers who exploit workers “based on illegal stereotyping due to race or the country they come from,” Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles district, said in a statement.
The case could also play into the current debate in Congress over how to reform the decades-old H-2A guest-worker program that was intended to fill labor shortages in agriculture.
“They need to make sure workers are protected from exploitation both before transit [to the U.S.] and after they arrive,” Chanchanit Martorell, founder and executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, told MintPress News in an interview.
The program allows H-2A temporary worker visas to be issued to foreign nationals employed seasonally in agribusiness by employers who are unable to fill the jobs with U.S. workers at minimum wage. Other categories of temporary workers such as those in specialty occupations, athletes and entertainers, are eligible for H-1B or H-2B visas.
H-2A visas are valid for one year, renewable up to three years, and citizens of 59 countries are eligible for the program. In 2012, the government issued 65,345 H-2A visas, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all H visas issued.
In recent years, however, critics have described the program as fundamentally lacking in protections for workers and characterized by rampant abuse.
Violations of workers’ rights by H-2A employers are “rampant and systemic,” the advocacy group Farmworker Justice said in a 2011 report, which also noted, “Many guest workers must pay recruiters for H-2A jobs and enter the U.S. indebted, desperate to work, and fearful that the loss of their job will lead to financial ruin.”
“Social and geographic isolation, lower than advertised wages, less work than promised, dirty and dilapidated housing, dangerous working conditions, and even forced labor or slavery typify the experience of many guest workers,” the report said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center titled its 2013 report on the program “Close to Slavery.“ It said, “Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated.”
According to a Mother Jones magazine investigation published in April 2010, Orian started out in the manpower business in his native Israel in 1989, filling jobs that could no longer be trusted to Palestinians, and expanded a few years later to Europe and the U.S.
For H-2A farmworker contracts, Global Horizons charged growers a premium of between 45 and 80 percent of each worker’s wages in return for handling transportation, housing, food, payroll, workers’ compensation and health care.
The Thai workers came from a country where agriculture employs half the population. In the U.S., they could earn in 10 months as much as four times as much as they would make in a year in Thailand. And their working environment in Hawaii appeared idyllic.
“The Maui Pineapple Co.’s land is nestled among gorgeous foothills, shrouded in mist and covered with volcanic soil the color of dark coffee,” Mother Jones reported.
“If [Global Horizons] had done what they promised, it would have worked out great” for the workers, said Clare M. Hanusz, a Honolulu attorney who has represented former Global Horizons laborers in immigration cases. “It would have secured much, much better futures for their families.”
“The problem is they … did not get what they were promised,” she told MintPress.
“They were completely trapped”
Orian, whose business is based in Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment about the EEOC case. On its website, Global Horizons says “it understands the aspirations of countless workers who dream of having better jobs in better places, but who wish to return to their country of native origin when they’ve completed the job.” Orian has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
“Every day, I take my kids to school,” he told Mother Jones. “Sometimes, I get into a traffic jam. That’s the only trafficking I do.”
But in 2006, the Department of Labor banned Global Horizons from importing more H-2A workers after finding it “knowingly gave false information” to visa applicants. Four years later, a federal grand jury in Honolulu indicted Orian, three of his employees and two Thai labor recruiters on charges of enticing about 400 Thai nationals to come to the U.S. with false promises of lucrative jobs, and then forcing them to keep working by threatening to send them back to Thailand.
Those alleged threats were serious, Hanusz said, because the workers had put up land and property as collateral for the bank loans they had obtained to pay recruitment fees. If they lost their jobs, they would have defaulted on the loans.
“They were completely trapped,” Hanusz said.
Three defendants pleaded guilty in the case, but on the eve of Orian’s trial in July 2012, the Department of Justice dropped all charges against him, saying only that the government had determined it was unable “to prove the elements of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“It was just vindictiveness … a malicious prosecution,” Orian said at the time.
But his legal problems didn’t end there. After a five-year investigation, the EEOC filed civil rights suits in Hawaii and Washington state in April 2011, alleging Global Horizons had engaged in unfair employment practices in its use of H-2A laborers going back to 2003.
On March 19, Judge Kobayashi issued a decision in the Hawaii case that, according to supporters of the Thai workers, was a complete vindication of their long struggle for justice.
Global Horizons’ regional manager, the judge said, “routinely threatened [workers] that they would be deported if they did not work faster or harder, if they tried to escape, or if they complained about or questioned the working or living conditions,” while the company’s field supervisor threatened workers with a gun and routinely carried a baseball bat at the housing facility to enforce curfew.
“Global Horizons exploited the enormous debts the Thai workers incurred to pay the recruitment fees,” Kobayashi also found, declaring the company liable for discrimination based on a hostile work environment, disparate treatment and retaliation.
The Washington state case is set for trial in September and, in Honolulu, the EEOC will now seek monetary damages on behalf of more than 500 workers. “We will proceed accordingly to collect [damages] against those responsible,” EEOC attorney Park told MintPress.
But no matter what the eventual award might be, Hanusz believes the EEOC cases have already changed “the ending of the story.”
“The criminal case … was not the end,” she said. “The end of the story is the EEOC chose to look at the charges and found the victims had suffered and what happened to them was wrong. Even though no one ended up in jail, it’s still a better ending to the story.”