Judge rules Thai workers were exploited, physically abused on Hawaii farms

LIABLE: Motty Orian’s company, Global Horizon, has been found liable for worker abuses in EEOC case, a judge rules.

By Malia Zimmerman | Watchdog.org

HONOLULU — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing a ruling by a Honolulu federal judge, said Monday a Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor violated anti-discrimination laws by “harassing, discriminating, and retaliating against hundreds of Thai workers” in the United States.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi ruled Monday in a civil lawsuit filed by Thai workers that they were exploited, physically abused and subjected to barbaric security measures at the Maui Pineapple Co. plantation and housing facilities owned by Global Horizons Inc.

Global Horizons CEO Mordechai Yosef Orian told Watchdog.org on Monday he hadn’t seen the judge’s order, but called the EEOC announcement “insane” and “delusional.” He maintained the incidents detailed by the EEOC “never happened.”

Orian said he won’t comment further until he and his lawyers decide whether to appeal the ruling.

The federal civil case against Global Horizons has dragged on for years.

In April 2011, the EEOC filed a claim against Global Horizons and six Hawaii farms on behalf of Thai farm workers who were brought into the United States to work under the H2-A visa program.

“High recruitment fees created a great debt for the Thai workers who faced abuses on the farms such as slapping, punching, humiliation, heavy surveillance and threats of being shot, deported or arrested,” the EEOC said.

Food, housing and living conditions were also “deplorable” for the Thai workers, the commission said.

In her ruling, Kobayashi said Thai workers were paid less, denied breaks, worked more demeaning jobs and were on the job for more hours than other workers.

A hard life

Hawaii Attorney Clare Hanusz

Hawaii attorney Clare Hanusz represented some of the Thai workers brought to Hawaii by Global Horizons.

“This decision is further vindication that the Thai workers were victims who were taken advantage of and mistreated badly, not the opportunists and schemers Motty Orian attempted to portray them as,” Hanusz said.

Many of Hanusz’ clients have stories like that of Samphong Medera, a husband and father of two.

Medera, 27, told Watchdog.org that when Bangkok-based AACO International Recruitment Co. offered to send him to America in 2003 through a contract with Global Horizons Manpower Co., he took a chance to make more money and find a better life for his family.

Using the family’s house and farm as collateral, he borrowed 705,000 baht — about $17,625 — from a bank and people in his village. He thought that with a three-year full-time contract with Global Horizons for more than $9 per hour he could repay the debt in a year and save the rest.

He was wrong.

Medera is one of hundreds of Thai men who left their homeland from 2003 to 2007 via a contract with Global Horizons who say they are left with tremendous debt, and in some cases, are homeless and in Hawaii illegally.

Medera was first sent to Washington State, where he and 60 other Thai workers picked apples. Crammed into one house, all workers shared two bathrooms, Medera said.

After apple season, he was sent back to Thailand for a year, jobless. He later ended up on Oahu, where he worked for two months part-time at Del Monte Plantation. Medera said he worked just six out of 18 months, but couldn’t get the $17,625 returned and his family property was in financial jeopardy.

A Global Horizons supervisor told him not to complain or “misbehave” or “he would be deported,” Medera said.

When Medera thought in 2005 he might be deported again, he ran away. Homeless in Hawaii, Medera worked odd jobs, cooking and doing dishes and yard work to survive.

Time to pay up

Global Horizon CEO Motty Orian on the record with Watchdog reporter Malia Zimmerman

Global Horizon CEO Motty Orian on the record with Watchdog reporter Malia Zimmerman

The civil case will go back to court Nov. 18 to determine how much Global Horizons will owe for what the EEOC described as “the largest human trafficking case in agriculture to date.”

Of the six farms accused of being part of the discrimination and abuse, five have reached settlements. In November 2013, Del Monte Fresh Produce settled its lawsuit for $1.2 million and agreed to make training and policy changes to ensure civil rights of farm workers. The case against Maui Pineapple Co. is ongoing.

A companion case brought by the EEOC against Global Horizons in Washington State is set for trial on Sept. 15.

“The judge’s granting of judgment for liability vindicates the rights of the multitude of Thai farm workers who survived inhumane abuses and discrimination at the hands of their employers — who controlled not only their working conditions but where they lived, what they could eat, and the basic right to move around freely,” said Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles district, which includes Southern California and Hawaii.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Division pursued a separate criminal case against Orian in 2010, alleging he was responsible for the “largest human trafficking ring in recent history.”

In a multi-count indictment, Orian and five others were charged with a “scheme” to import 600 Thai workers to America from 2001 to 2007. The charges include forced labor conspiracy, a document servitude conspiracy and threatening “serious harm” to workers.

Orian’s trial was set for Aug. 28, 2012, but in July 2012, after spending millions of dollars and securing three guilty pleas from alleged conspirators, the federal government dropped the case, saying it didn’t have enough evidence to convict Orian.

Thai workers issued a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Aug. 13, 2012, expressing their outrage over the dismissal of the charges.

Ciontact 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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