Hawaii basil farm ‘deplorable,’ ‘unsafe,’ judgment says

FAT LAW FARM: HI’s largest exporter of basil to the mainland US and Canada.

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU — The federal government, citing “deplorable” and “unsafe” conditions, has fined Hawaii’s top exporter of basil nearly a half-million dollars.

Fat Law Farm, which encompasses 425 acres in Leeward, Oahu, owes hundreds of thousands in back wages to foreign workers, a Department of Labor report says.

The farm must pay $428,800 in back wages and damages to workers and $31,200 in civil penalties because of “deplorable housing, safety and health conditions for workers,” according to a consent judgment approved this week by U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright.

The farm, according to the state Department of Health, exports 80 percent of Hawaii’s basil crops — worth $5 million annually.

The Fat Law judgment also warns farm owners against holding workers’ passports, refusing to let workers leave the farm or ordering workers to pay a fee as a prerequisite to being hired —all elements of human trafficking under federal law, said Kathryn Xian, an advocate for human trafficking victims who founded the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.

Specifically, Fat Law Farms violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions between 2011 and 2013, court documents show.

Juan Coria, acting regional administrator for the federal Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in the Western Region, said investigators found “vulnerable” workers and “egregious violations.”

Filipinos were paid $7.25 per hour, the state’s minimum wage, and overtime. Laotians, however, were paid $5 per hour in cash, without overtime, and worked 70 hours per week.

Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator in the Labor Wage and Hour’s Western region, said it’s rare a company owes this much in back wages. Other agencies are looking into whether the company violated tax, insurance and employee-mandate provisions.

DEPLORABLE: This mat in a crowded storage room isn’t appropriate housing for workers, DOL said.

Alvin Law, spokesman for Fat Law Farm, said the judgment doesn’t tell the farm’s side of the story.

“Most workers would rather be paid less in minimum wage and have a place to stay and eat, rather than be paid the minimum wage and commute to work,” Law said. “This is what we offered and what some of the workers wanted.”

Law maintained “workers were supplied a kitchen, lodging and laundry area. Because the farm provided housing, Fat Law should have had a credit toward wages.

That the farm would consider the living conditions “standard,” Rosalez said, is “shameful.”

Photos provided by investigators show workers lived in plywood shacks piled with trash, slept on floor mats in crowded conditions and in moving vans and cooked in rusted pots on an antiquated portable stove.

Law said the “standards and rules are not apparently obvious to small farmers.”

“The bottom line is the rules are complex, and we are working with the Department of Labor to become in compliance,” Law said.

UNSAFE: U.S. DOL said living and working conditions are unsafe, even shameful.

The U.S. Department of Labor began its investigation into Fat Law and other Oahu farms after a series of Watchdog.org stories highlighted how Laotian workers were trafficked from Laos to Hawaii via a B2 visitor visa scam. The workers, then, were placed on one of several Asian vegetable farms and subjected to horrible working conditions and essentially lived in servitude.

Law said the farm now employs no illegal foreign workers, but he didn’t say whether such workers were employed before.

Law maintained the farm didn’t keep anyone’s passport, prevent workers from leaving or charge a fee to new hires.

Xian said the language in the judgment documents elements of human trafficking.

DANGER: Pesticides being mixed and sprayed incorrectly by foreign workers

Xian said another concern, in which the U.S. Department of Labor has no jurisdiction, is how workers apply pesticide to produce.

On many Oahu farms, foreign workers hired as pesticide “sprayers” get sick and some have died as a result of repeated, excessive exposure to this pesticide, Xian said, in part because workers cannot read product labels.

“These workers suffer more than just wage violations. They are at risk of significant poisoning by these pesticides, which they are forced to spray on crops that end up on our dinner tables,” Xian said.

In 2012, the state Department of Health ordered the company to destroy its entire basil crop — all 29 acres — because it used an unapproved pesticide. Through spot testing, state investigators found the farm was using the pesticide methomyl at two of its farm properties. Methomyl is toxic to humans.

Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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