A new breed of labor suppliers didn’t get the memo that slavery in America is over when they trafficked and trapped overseas workers on farms across the nation. Now they’re in the crosshairs of federal agencies who can do what law enforcement can’t — punish them under civil rights laws
By Jenn Stanley
That’s the gist of the email Chancee Martorell got from one of the U.S. attorneys working with her on a human trafficking case — the fancy way of saying modern day slavery. Standing behind her desk at the Thai Community Development Center in Hollywood, she scrambled through stacks of paper just before sitting down, pulling her chair in and trying to reach her computer mouse without knocking folders and paperwork on the floor.
Now invisible behind boxes of documents representing 20 years of work organizing and advocating for a community she felt was going unnoticed, Martorell opened the missive. The District of Columbia lawyer’s note said to call him immediately. Worried, she braced herself, taking a deep breath before picking up the phone, the space between the ringing phone and the answer tugging on Martorell’s gut.
The L.A. sun shone behind her through a barred window. Then, she recalls, Robert Moossy picked up: “Chancee, I am so sorry, but I need to tell you that despite all our efforts, and I know it’s been a long haul, and I know all of you have been working so hard, and I know the workers have been very patient,” Moossy was saying, as Martorell’s gut pulled harder. “All of us at the Department of Justice have tried our utmost best and did everything we could, but I need to tell you that we are going to ask for the judge to dismiss this case.”
She was speechless.
Staring into the hallway, she mentally checked off years, starting in 2003 when the first trafficking victim rang the buzzer at the center’s offices on Yucca Street to the present, the summer of 2012. “How is this possible?” she said to herself, as she thought of the hundreds of Thai workers who had been brought to the United States under false pretenses, then held captive by the labor supplying giant known as Global Horizons Manpower, Inc. Criminal charges against owner and CEO Mordechai Orian and six others, three of whom pleaded guilty, were to be dropped.
Martorell, 46, wanted to scream, but she pulled it together, reminding herself that the more than 400 men who only wanted a honest day’s work still had the option of filing civil charges. Besides, her longtime civil rights ally, Anna Park, a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, would not rest until some justice was served. The case, EEOC v. Global Horizons, actually came to the commission through the Thai Community Development Center. Park and her team of EEOC lawyers had already been working on a civil case against Global Horizons and the farms that used their services when the Department of Justice decided to pursue criminal charges.
When the Federal Bureau of Investigation was conducting interviews with the victims, the EEOC stepped back. Now that the DOJ was dropping the charges, it was full steam ahead. Even at the EEOC, they had seen cases like this before but never to this magnitude.
“In typical harassment cases, you don’t hear terms like, ‘I had to escape from work, I had to escape from being held, being deprived of basic necessities like food and water. Being forced to work and not being able to leave,” Park says. “Those kinds of allegations really speak to servitude and slavery as opposed to a regular employment. So it was one of those situations where it disturbed the agency quite a bit that these types of violations or allegations were occurring.”
The phrase “human trafficking” tends to evoke images of sex workers, but the definition of human trafficking encompasses all instances in which humans are commoditized and sold against their will. Labor trafficking is a global issue just starting to enter the public discourse. Human trafficking charges are typically pursued as criminal cases, making the EEOC’s claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 monumental. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
After years of preparation, suits were filed in Hawaii and Washington in 2011 against Global Horizons and eight farms, citing the pattern and practice of discrimination based on national origin and race. It is still the largest human trafficking case in agriculture ever. Workers from Thailand were brought over legally on H-2A visas for temporary agricultural work. But the nature of the recruitment was suspicious at best. Global Horizons charged workers high fees for job placement, saying the workers would quickly pay off their debts with high American wages. It is now illegal under U.S. law for employers or recruiters to charge workers fees for job placement.
No such law existed in the early 2000s. Orian, who currently lives in the Los Angeles area, maintains his innocence, claiming Global Horizons did not get any money from workers’ fees. He said if the workers were asked to pay any fees, they were not to his company.
“We worked hard, we had a beautiful company, but some crazy people in D.C., and the new administration came in and put a target on my back,” Orian says in his own defense. “I’d rather rot in jail and know I did nothing wrong than admit to something that never happened.”
Though the workers were given visas, the documents were immediately confiscated upon arrival, along with their passports. Global Horizons was then able to threaten deportation if workers complained or spoke to anyone outside the confines of the company. These workers had leveraged everything they had — and didn’t have — back home in Thailand to pay these fees, banking on the promise that money earned and sent back home would change the trajectory of the impoverished families. High debts back home made it dangerous to return.
‘I was so afraid.’
Patiphan Homon, 39, who signed on with Global Horizons in 2004, said within his first few weeks in the United States, he witnessed two workers who had been deported for communicating with outsiders. Homon had left his pregnant wife, stepson and father; and because he had already incurred so much debt, he was at risk of losing his ancestral farm in Phitsanulok in northern Thailand. As a rice farmer, Homon’s livelihood was tied to the seasons. Where he is from, growing season only lasts July through October, not long or lucrative enough for Homon to support his family.
According to Martorell and others on the case, this made him a prime candidate for recruitment by a labor supplier. Homon took out more debt to pay Global Horizons’ recruitment fees because it seemed like his only choice. He needed the work in America, and he couldn’t risk deportation.
“I was so afraid,” Homon says though a translator. “Afraid they wouldn’t bring me back. They would always threaten me, ‘Do not contact outsiders,’ they said. And the reason I was so afraid was that they always carried out their threats.”
From 2004 to 2007, Homon worked at about seven farms throughout the United States. He met his own daughter for the first time at 2 months old, when he was sent back to Thailand around November of 2004. Thai workers were often sent back home with the threat of not being able to return. Though the working conditions were poor, being in debt in Thailand posed a larger threat.
The lawsuit outlines one instance in 2005 in which Global Horizons employees Sam Wongesanit and Shane Germann, who pleaded guilty to criminal human trafficking charges, installed bells on string lines in the woods around the workers’ living quarters of Maui Pineapple Company in Kahului to alert guards of escape attempts. The lawsuit claims that Wongesanit “threatened Maui Pineapple claimants with a gun and routinely carried a baseball bat during meetings and at the claimants’ housing facility to enforce the curfew.”
According to court documents, by mid-September, some workers were brought to the airport where hired guards ensured they boarded their flight back to Thailand. Workers who subsequently paid higher fees were sent back to American farms to work. Instances like this made Homon and other workers increasingly afraid to speak up against their conditions because they did not want to be sent back for good.
Even now, years later, Homon can’t hold back tears while talking about his debts and fear of retaliation. He had his family to worry about. He was exhausted. At one farm, Homon recalls being asked to pick more and more produce every day, until the load became unmanageable. He and other Thai workers claim that while farmers of different national origins were being paid by the amount they picked, Thai workers were paid by the hour. At Green Acre Farms in Washington, supervisors would often send them home after just an hour or so.
At this rate, it would be impossible to make enough money to send to his family. When Homon was sent back to the house, an hour ride on an overcrowded bus that forced some workers to stand or sit on ice buckets in the aisles, he would just lay in a bunk bed in the room he shared with nine other workers, waiting for the next day to come. There was nothing for him to do but worry.
Homon couldn’t leave because his supervisors from Global Horizons told them if they left, they would be arrested and deported and the company would do nothing to stop it. The workers were always being watched by supervisors who would yell at them, threaten physical force and use other intimidation techniques to keep the workers in line. Workers brought in from other countries, such as the Philippines, did not face the same conditions, allegedly because Global Horizons believed those workers wouldn’t put up with such treatment and try to escape.
According to the court records, a representative from Global Horizons admitted, “Micronesian and Filipino workers were not subjected to security measures, daily head counts or roll calls and were not held as a captive workforce.”
Homon has considered why the Thai workers were treated so poorly compared with others: “I think it’s because we were easier to control. I don’t know if they looked upon us as slaves or not. But they could order us around.” Homon’s is just one of hundreds of stories like this. Martorell suspects Global Horizons preyed on workers with the most to lose—those with families and ancestral farms to use as collateral, who had little education — and a lot of fear.
“What ultimately drove this case was stereotyping,” the EEOC’s Park says. “Stereotyping that uneducated Thai workers, mainly from northern Thailand who came from farms and who maybe were lacking in levels of education, were vulnerable and could be controlled. That’s what drove this. That people could be forced to do work at Global Horizon’s bidding without regard for their well-being, essentially in violation of what we believe was Title VII. Our agency said that’s wrong.”
So did Judge Leslie Kobayashi of Hawaii District Court in March of 2014, when she found Global Horizons guilty of workplace abuse and discrimination based on national origin. One of the farms in the lawsuit, Del Monte Fresh Produce, settled for $1.2 million in November 2013. Four of the farms (Captain Cook Coffee Company, Kauai Coffee Company, Kelena Farms and MacFarms of Hawaii) are still finalizing settlements with the EEOC, and the case with Maui Pineapple Company is still in litigation.
Global Horizons’ case in Washington state is ongoing; however, the court ruled against Title VII claims against the two farms: Green Acre Farms Inc. and Valley Fruit Orchards. The scope of the Global Horizons’ Title VII case and the fact that criminal charges were dropped make it that much more significant to future cases like this, as the broad scale of human trafficking and enslavement suggest there will be.
“This case was a national issue because the workers were on farms across the U.S.,” Martorell says. “Workers were also in the state of Washington, in Florida, in the Carolinas, in the Virginias, Utah, in New York, in Pennsylvania.”
‘It’s close to slavery …’
The H-2A visa program is expanding rapidly throughout the country, according to Ruben Lugo, a U.S. Department of Labor agriculture enforcement coordinator. Because of limited staffing the agency often relies on H-2A users to self-police, putting pressure on other companies to remain compliant.
While Lugo couldn’t provide an exact number of available Department of Labor investigators, he explains, “There are more police officers in Los Angeles area than there are investigators on the entire West Coast, so we try to do our enforcement very strategically.”
Some critics argue the nature of the guest worker visa is problematic, even if compliance is met. To apply for H-2A visas with the labor department, a company needs to show they’ve actively tried to recruit and hire American workers, and that there aren’t enough American workers willing to do the work.
“We’ve always known that the guest worker program has been problematic, historically, because it really does not protect the rights of workers,” says Martorell, explaining the scenario. “They have to be working under that employer who applied for the visa and sponsored them. Let’s say that the employer was abusive: They have no right to go with another employer. If they leave that employer, they’ll immediately get their H-2A visas revoked. It’s close to slavery is my thought.”
It’s hard to quantify whether human trafficking is increasing, or awareness and action are, but many labor experts say it’s a little bit of both. Even though the criminal charges were dismissed against Orian and the six other Global Horizons employees, they were dismissed without prejudice, which bodes well for the victims. This means the government isn’t denying these workers are victims of human trafficking, but that there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even to this day, none of the lawyers or advocates on the side of the Thai workers understands what happened with the criminal charges, and the U.S. Department of Justice has not been forthcoming with answers. DOJ officials were contacted for this story but did not respond as of this writing. Homon now works as an auto-mechanic, gets vacation time and health benefits, and is on his way to paying off his debts.
“My boss is a good person,” Homon says. “I’m still learning some things, but I do everything they ask me to do.”
He has been reunited with his wife and kids in the Los Angeles area. His father died while he was still working for Global Horizons, and he was unable to return to Thailand to pay his respects. Homon says at first his wife lied to him saying all the debts were paid, as a way of protecting him because he was so overwhelmed.
For her agency’s part, Park says though human trafficking cases have historically been thought of in the criminal paradigm, more government agencies are starting to apply their authority to combat the problem of modern day slavery.
“Discrimination is not stagnant. It is ever-evolving,” Park says. “To combat it, we have to be flexible, visible and make sure that people are aware.”
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