Saturday, June 7, 2014

Modern-Day Plantation Labor

            A young man is recruited by a labor agency to head to east. Convinced that working on farms in Hawai'i would make him more money, he signed a three-year contract with the agency, took out a loan to pay for the travel expenses, and left his country. He ends up on Oahu with workers from his own country. He lived in substandard housing infested with rats and insects. He is told by his supervisors that if he didn’t follow the rules, he’d be deported. His wages were too low to pay off his loan. Desperate and scared, he runs off the farm and becomes homeless in Honolulu.
            This is not campaign literature for a local politician talking about his or her ancestors. Samphong Medera was recruited from Thailand in 2003.       Medera is one of many Thai workers accusing local farms of dehumanizing abuse and degrading conditions.
They say that in Hawaii, their passports were confiscated and slept on the floor with other workers. Twenty-six people shared a single bathroom. A field supervisor (known around here as the luna) used a gun and a baseball bat to enforce a curfew on workers. One laborer claimed that he was hit with a stick to work faster.
The stories from the Thais are a horrible throwback to the early days of industrial agriculture in Hawaii. They managed to get the attention of the federal government, but surprisingly almost no one else.
            In 2010, the Department of Justice started investigating some of the farms in Hawaii and its labor recruiters. At first, the feds tried to prosecute the companies and business leaders with criminal charges. They indicted two brothers who run a local farm on Oahu.        Workers came to the Sous’ Aloun Farms in Kapolei took a loan to get there and the plan was to pay it off through wages. Once the got there, however, they said they were underpaid, released in just five months, and were forced to live in a storage container near the jobsite. The Sous vehemently denied these claims.
            Mick and Alec Sou were looking at decades in prison if found guilty. It looked like a showdown in federal court, but the Sous decided to take a plea deal and plead to the offenses visa fraud and forced labor. The Sous geared up for sentencing and an outpouring of support came from prominent members in the community. Former governor Ben Cayetano wrote a letter in their support. Community leaders pointed out that the Sous themselves were immigrants (they come from Laos) and that Alec Sou is an advocate for helping the homeless.
            But the sentencing never happened. Federal prosecutors dropped all charges and the judge allowed the Sous to withdraw their pleas. Why the about-face? The feds said that they made a mistake when advising the grand jury about the law. The federal prosecutors—who flew in from Washington—moved to dismiss the charges (even though they pleaded guilty) and left the islands.
            But the feds were not done yet. Mordechai Orian runs Global Horizons, an LA-based labor recruiting business. Global Horizons sent hundreds of workers from Thailand, Micronesia, and the Philippines to agricultural companies—including Aloun Farms—all over the State for the last ten years. Again, as with the Sou prosecution, workers accused the company and its client farms of abusive supervisors, deceptive labor contracts, and bad working conditions.
Instead of seeking criminal charges, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Global Horizons and six farms in Hawaii. This time a federal judge found them liable for discrimination and responsible for bad working conditions. This week, it was announced that more farms settled. Mac Farms, Kalena Farms, Captain Cook Coffee Co., and Kauai Coffee Company have all agreed to pay amounts ranging from $100,000 to $1.6 million.
There’s only one farm that hasn’t and trial is scheduled in November, our own Maui Pineapple Company—the same company that has links to the original Maui Land & Pineapple Company.
            Our local culture owes a great deal to the mass migration of agricultural laborers. Politicians love to invoke the image of Japanese, Korean, or Filipino worker who arrived to the islands to work in sugar and pineapple fields. Their descendants moved on to become prominent members of the middle and professional classes. To think that appalling working conditions on farms in Hawaii are still happening is deeply troubling.
            Then again, the farmers and the labor recruiters deny these claims. Who’s right? Maybe a trial will illuminate some of these things.
            What is certain, however, is that despite these stories and despite the vehement denials, the plight of the Thai worker has failed to capture the imagination or interest of most folks in Hawaii. Given our islands' labor history, the local apathy is just as troubling as the stories themselves.