Six labor recruiters have been accused of luring 400 farm workers to Hawaii from Thailand and mistreating them in what the FBI said is the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history.
An indictment unsealed in Honolulu Thursday charges six people with conspiracy to commit human trafficking, including four employees of Global Horizons Manpower, Inc., a labor recruiting company. Two other recruiters based in Thailand were also charged in the case.
The indictment said Global Horizons brought 400 immigrants in 2004 from Thailand to the islands to work on farms in Hawaii and on the mainland. Prosecutors said the workers were lured with false promises of high-paying farm jobs but were exploited and forced into labor, often with little or no pay.
"It's a classic bait-and-switch what they were doing. They were telling the Thai workers one thing to lure them here. Then when they got here, their passports were taken away and they were held in forced servitude working in these farms," said FBI Special Agent Tom Simon. ?This is just appalling that this would occur.?
The immigrants worked at 13 to 14 farms on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island, tending to coffee, fruits and vegetables. Their employers included Aloun Farms on Oahu as well as Maui Pineapple Farm, which is no longer in business. But the farm workers were also sent to 12 other states as far away as Florida, Ohio and Kentucky, the FBI said.
Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian -- one of six people indicted in this case -- claimed in an interview with KITV four years ago his company paid farm workers more than the minimum wage.
"Instead of $6.75 we are paying $9.99. We are providing free housing, free transportation," Orian said in 2006.
Federal prosecutors and the FBI said Global Horizons recruited Thai nationals, often getting them to mortgage their homes or farms in Thailand to pay the company anywhere from $9,000 to $21,000 to secure them jobs in the United States.
Even though they signed contracts guaranteeing certain wages, the immigrants were often paid much less or even forced to work on farms for free, the FBI said. And while they were told they would get work visas that allowed them to work legally in the United States for three years, sometimes the company only arranged for temporary visas that expired after a few weeks, according to attorneys for the laborers.
"In the old days, they used to keep slaves in place using chains and whips. These days, it's done through economic intimidation," Simon said.
"They couldn't run away they didn't have their documents. They were trapped. They were literally trapped," said Honolulu immigration attorney Clare Hanusz, who tipped off the FBI about the case two years ago. She represents 56 of the victims in the case.
She and fellow immigration attorney Melissa Vicenty sat down with an FBI agent in Honolulu to begin interviewing the victims in 2008, touching off the federal investigation, Hanusz said. "There were a lot of tears that were shed at these interviews. It was appalling," she said.
"The guys almost always had their passports withheld. So they were very vulnerable. They were without documentation," she added.
"There's a good chance that all of us, over the past few years, have purchased fruits or vegetables or coffee that was harvested by some of these guys, there's a very good chance," said Hanusz.
If the FBI finds that they are victims of trafficking, the laborers can apply for temporary legal status, allowing them to remain in the United States for four years, Hanusz said. As long as they cooperate with law enforcement, they can bring their spouses and children to the United States and eventually apply for permanent citizenship, she said.
?They?ve been living in the shadows because they still have these debts they have to pay off and they can never re-pay the debts if they go back to Thailand,? Hanusz said. ?They?ve had some very difficult times in the past but we?re looking for some family reunification and some really joyful times soon."
Aloun Farms in Kapolei, whose two owners have pleaded guilty in a separate human trafficking case, started out as clients of Global Horizons, according to Hanusz. Mike and Alec Sou, who are brothers, are scheduled to be sentenced in that case next Thursday in federal court in Honolulu.
?They brought in workers through Global, but Global got a cut of that. And I think at some point, they figured out, ?Hey we could do this without global.? Especially since the Sou brothers are familiar with Thai and Lao culture, so they could cut out the middle man,? said Hanusz, who also represents victims in the Aloun Farms case.
?They were able to follow the same scheme as Global Horizons, without having to pay additional money,? she added.
The FBI said Aloun Farms is the only Hawaii farm that is not cooperating in the investigation. None of the other farms have been criminally charged in the indictment, Simon said.
He added the FBI is trying to learn the extent that the farms were aware of the forced labor conditions of their workers.
Orian, 45, an Israeli national, was not at his Los Angeles home when FBI agents tried to execute an arrest warrant Thursday morning, Simon said. The FBI has been in touch with Orian by telephone and is trying to negotiate his surrender, he said.
A woman who answered the phone at Global Horizons? Los Angeles office refused to take a message seeking comment Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
Another of the six defendants is Sam Wongsesanit, 39, of Kona, who is expected to surrender to the FBI next week.
The Thai recruiters were identified as two women, Ratawan Chunharutai and Podjanee Sinchai. The FBI said they are both considered fugitives. FBI agents in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok will work with Thai law enforcement to ?bring them to justice in accordance with existing treaties between the United States and Thailand,? Simon said.
In another previous case in 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor settled an investigation with Global Horizons in which the company paid 88 Thai workers almost $300,000 in back wages and civil penalties. A federal probe found the company committed a series of violations when it placed workers at Aloun Farms in Kapolei and Del Monte on Oahu in 2003.
Labor investigators found the workers were brought to the United States on special visas and were only approved for work in Arizona, even though they worked in Hawaii.