More than two dozen Thai farmworkers lined up in front of the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in Sun Valley on Wednesday, flanked by the compound's two giant guardian statues but still so frightened of retaliation that they masked their faces with sunglasses, baseball caps and traditional Thai scarves.
Then their representative stepped forward and spoke, breaking the long public silence in what federal authorities call the largest labor-trafficking case in U.S. history.
Seven years in the making, the case broke open last week when a federal grand jury in Honolulu indicted Mordechai Orian, the Israeli-born president of Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Beverly Hills labor contracting firm. Five of Orian's associates were also indicted on criminal charges of labor coercion of about 400 Thai farm workers.
As he took the lectern Wednesday, a 42-year-old farmworker described being recruited by Thai associates of Global Horizons to pick apples in Washington and pineapples in Hawaii. They promised him a 40-hour workweek with pay that amounted to more than 10 times his $100 monthly income as a struggling rice farmer in rural Thailand, he said.
The man, who went by the pseudonym Lee to protect his identity, arrived in Seattle on the Fourth of July, 2004. But rather than finding freedom and independence, he said, he was charged an $18,000 recruiting fee and given less than half the work promised. The recruiters confiscated his passport, confined him to a wooden shack, warned him not to speak to anyone outside the farm and threatened him with violence and deportation if he tried to escape, he said.
Finally, in September 2005, he escaped under cover of darkness by running through pineapple fields, he said.
"I thought I would find freedom and jobs here," he said at the news conference. "I thought the United States was a civilized nation, the highest in the world. I never imagined this kind of thing could happen here."
Calls to Global Horizons were not returned.
A federal judge Wednesday ruled that Orian, who turned himself in to the FBI in Honolulu last week, could be released to his Malibu home until his trial, provided that he post a $1-million bond based on actual real estate equity and wear electronic monitoring. The trial is scheduled for November.
Damrong Kraikruan, consul general of Thailand in Los Angeles, said his country had revoked Global Horizons' license to work there in 2005 and convicted one of the firm's Thai associates of operating a job procurement business without a license. He said Thailand was aggressively working with the United States, the United Nations and surrounding countries to crack down on the growing global problem of labor trafficking.
In remarks at the news conference Wednesday, Jorge Guzman of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement urged the public to report any suspicions about human trafficking to law enforcement and praised the Thai Community Development Center for raising awareness about the problem.
"Awareness is crucial to making this shameful practice a thing of the past," he said.
Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the center, uncovered the case in 2003 when the first farmworker to escape from the Hawaii pineapple farm came to her center. Since then, she and her staff have interviewed more than 200 farmworkers, obtained more than 100 temporary visas for them and filed civil charges against Global Horizons with the federal labor department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Since his escape, Lee has found work as a cook in a Thai restaurant and received a visa allowing him to stay in the U.S. as long as he cooperates with law enforcement on the case.
But he said he misses his homeland and his family, whom he has not seen for seven years. His daughters, now 19 and 9, barely recognize him in pictures, he said. But he would fear for his safety if he returned home now that he has become a federal witness.
"In my heart, I want to go home," he said. "But in this country they'll protect me better."