Anna Park, a regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
In its largest farm labor trafficking case ever, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday charged a Beverly Hills-based firm and eight farms with severe abuse and discrimination involving more than 200 Thai farmworkers.
Federal attorneys alleged that Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a labor contracting firm headed by Israel native Mordechai Orian, subjected workers in Hawaii and Washington to violence, inadequate pay and nutrition, rat-infested housing, and other illegal conditions based on their national origin and race.
Global Horizons recruited Thai men to the farms under a legal farmworker program from 2003 to 2007 with false promises of steady, high-paying jobs — then confiscated their passports and threatened them with deportation if they complained about work conditions, according to two civil complaints announced Wednesday in Los Angeles. To secure the jobs, the workers were charged recruitment fees as high as $25,000, forcing many of them to take on staggering debt, according to Anna Park, regional attorney for the commission's Los Angeles office.
"Human trafficking remains one of the worst forms of discrimination in this day and age," Park said.
Global Horizons did not respond to an email request for comment, and the firm's phones did not appear to be working. The firm's previous spokeswoman, Kara Lujan, said Wednesday that she cut ties with Global Horizons in December after becoming suspicious about its financial integrity; she is now representing a Vietnam-based firm alleging that Orian scammed it out of $600,000 after failing to produce promised jobs in Canada and Israel for 300 Vietnamese farmworkers.
Orian could not be reached for comment. A Honolulu grand jury has indicted him and seven associates on criminal charges of conspiracy to coerce the labor of about 600 Thai workers. Orian has pleaded not guilty; the trial is scheduled for February. If convicted, he faces 70 years in prison.
Most of the farms, which are in Hawaii and Washington, could not be reached for comment or said they could not comment because they had not yet received the complaints.
Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, which has worked on the case for seven years, said some of the workers were housed 18 to a room and were so undernourished that they were driven to eat leaves. Others were housed in a freight container with no windows, electricity or running water. They also suffered "cruel and abusive" treatment by overseers in the coffee and pineapple fields, she said.
Although the workers were paid at least minimum wage, they ended up earning far less than promised because fees were deducted for food and lodging, Martorell said. The workers were told they could work three years, enough time to pay off their debts, but some were deported back to Thailand after a few months, she added.
She said more victims are expected to surface, since Global Horizons acquired temporary agricultural visas for 1,100 Thai workers.
In a related development, the EEOC filed suit against an Alabama-based marine services company alleging it discriminated against at least 500 Indian welders and pipe-fitters at its Mississippi and Texas facilities. The complaint alleges that Signal International subjected the workers to unsanitary housing, unwholesome food, demeaning treatment and retaliation when they complained. Signal International officials could not be reached for comment.
Olophius E. Perry, EEOC district director in Los Angeles, said the commission is increasing scrutiny of human trafficking, one of the largest illegal trades in the world. The commission held a special meeting on the problem in January to discuss more effective ways to combat it, he said.
"We are barely scratching the surface," he said.