Is Slavery and Human Trafficking legal in the United States?

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In the old days, they used to keep slaves in place using chains and whips. These days, it’s done through economic intimidation.

In the old days, they used to keep slaves in place using chains and whips. These days, it’s done through economic intimidation.
Did those responsible for for the largest human trafficking and slavery case in the United States get away without trial punishment?

In September of 2010, 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 at that time charged 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 US 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.

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.

Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms each face up to 20 years in prison without parole if found guilty after they backed out of a plea deal in September that came with a five-year maximum sentence.

The Sous risked trial rather than accept a plea agreement after the brothers disputed some of the facts they had previously accepted in the deal.

They acknowledged violations of the U.S. agricultural guest worker program, but they denied mistreating workers, underpaying them or withholding their passports to confine them to the Kapolei-based farm, which is a key source of vegetables to the isolated islands’ food supply.

Some of the Sous’ admissions before their plea deal was thrown out by Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway may be used against them.

In a turn of events, in August Chanchanit Martorell, Executive Director of the Thai Community Development Center announced the dismissal of this case by the U.S. Justice department.

He said: “Standing behind me are the Thai farmworkers from the largest human trafficking case in US history. On July 20th, 2012, I received a phone call from Assistant US Attorney, Robert Moossy, Jr., Acting Chief of the US Department of Justice Criminal Section, and his team, informing me that the US case against Mordechai Orian and his associates has been dismissed. The Justice Department also withdrew the guilty pleas of three other defendants. That phone call was followed up by a formal letter addressed to me explaining the reason for the Justice Department’s dismissal.

Needless to say, my staff and I were shocked and dismayed by the unexpected news just one month before the criminal trial was finally set to take place.
The Thai Community Development Center has been helping the Justice Department build its case against Mordechai Orian, CEO of Global Horizons Manpower Company, since 2003 when the first Thai farmworker escaped from the Hawaiian plantation where he had been placed by Global to pick fruits in abysmal working conditions. The Thai farmworker escaped because he found himself living and working as a virtual slave of the plantation where he was confined in dilapidated housing, kept under 24 hour surveillance, restricted from any movement, and stripped of his passport. In the course of the following two years, we discovered that this Thai farmworker was only one of 1,100 Thai farmworkers trafficked by Global to the U.S. to work on farms in over a dozen states. The truth came to light as several more of these farmworkers escaped from similar conditions and came to Thai CDC to tell us their story and seek justice. In every instance they would tell us the same story of deception, coercion and high recruitment fees which inevitably led to insurmountable debt. Global’s business boomed thanks to the guest worker H2-A visa program, designed to fill the shortage of agricultural workers in the US with temporary workers from abroad. What the Global case has proven, is that the H-2A guest worker program is nothing but a license to traffic impoverished farmworkers into slavery in the U.S.
According to the letter from the Criminal Section of the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, they were “unable to prove the elements of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, they reassured us that their “decision to dismiss should not be interpreted as a negative reflection on your clients. In addition, some of your clients already have been determined …to be victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons.”

Just these two sentences alone seem to be contradictory! On the one hand they can’t prove Global is guilty, but on the other hand, the workers are victims of human trafficking?! In light of their recent decision to not bring criminal charges against the financial giant Goldman Sachs for improper trading of subprime mortgages during the financial crisis, it appears that the Obama Administration and Attorney General Eric Holder have traded in their principles for political expediency during an election year. In the case of Goldman Sachs, the Justice Department issued an unsigned statement concluding that: “Based on the law and evidence as they exist at this time, there is not a viable basis to bring a criminal prosecution with respect to Goldman Sachs or its employees in regard to the allegations set forth in the [Senate] report.”

In the Global case, despite an extensive investigation by the Justice Department involving countless interviews of our clients in Los Angeles and Hawaii and the accumulation of boxes and boxes of documents and evidence spanning four years, the case still cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt?!

This outcome is simply not credible and not acceptable. Thai CDC will not give up its pursuit of justice on behalf of the victimized farm workers. The civil case filed in 2005 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Global and the farm owners for violations of the workers’ civil rights and for discrimination based on race and nationality will continue to be vigorously pursued as the workers’ only remaining means of obtaining justice for the wrongs they suffered.

The dismissal of the largest human trafficking case in US history comes on the 17th anniversary of the famed El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case considered the first case of modern day slavery in the US. However, instead of moving forward to combat labor trafficking and prosecute its perpetrators, the Justice Department has sent a signal to all traffickers that they have nothing to fear if they go through the motions of obtaining a temporary visa.

These latest victims of trafficking represent the human dimension of global capitalism and the race to the bottom by multinational corporations to reap exorbitant profits at the expense of workers. Modern day slavery has not occurred by accident. One important factor is the new world economy which makes capital mobile in search of cheaper labor. Modernization and globalization of the world economy are also driving people off their land and into slavery because there is enormous indirect value of slave labor to the world economy. Extraordinary profits are being reaped from slave produced goods as consumers seek more bargains. The new world economy also places greater emphasis on economic growth versus sustainable development in the developing world.

We are here today to inform you that egregious exploitation and abuse in the workplace even tantamount to human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor, and slavery cannot continue to exist and grow unrelentingly. Seventeen years after El Monte, we find that the scourge of modern-day slavery was not just a short-lived phenomenon but a new business model that is propagating like a cancer, rapidly and unabated.

Is this generation of Americans doomed to live in a neo-feudal society where the wealthy few live like kings amidst a sea of human misery? Is this the best we can do for our country, the land of the free and the brave?
The El Monte Case was truly the first labor struggle of global proportions our city had seen, proving that if capital could redraw the old boundaries in its favor, so could the people, and the legacy of that campaign is our ramped up fight to bring justice to the Thai farm workers.

We need to ensure that globalization provides benefits and opportunities for workers everywhere, rather than triggering a “race to the bottom.”

As the enslaved El Monte Thai workers nobly pointed out themselves, their fight was never simply about money because one can never put a price on freedom. Their fight is part of a greater struggle that is being enacted every day around the world. It is the struggle to bring accountability and justice to an economic system that has grown dependent on the ruthless exploitation of a defenseless and disenfranchised labor force to churn out ever increasing profits of unprecedented proportions.

The Thai workers sent this open letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

Dear Attorney General Holder:

We are the Thai farm workers who were victims of labor trafficking in the Global Horizons Manpower Case. It was not easy for us to come here. We have had to incur enormous debts and submit ourselves to tremendous hardship and exploitation, but we came because we could scarcely provide for our families with the meager resources we have at home. We have left behind our families with the hope that we would receive a just wage for our labor. Instead, we were forced into a terrible situation that none of us had expected. Many of us were sent back home to Thailand when we protested our conditions, but the rest of us who remained on US soil believed that we could find justice in this country.

We were told that we would be safe because the rule of law in the US was trustworthy. We knew that back home we would be in definite danger. Since we reported the trafficking to the US government, we were told that the crimes were being investigated.

Some of us spent hours upon hours detailing our experience over and over again to federal agents. Many of us still had the documents needed to prove everything we said was true. So much time had passed, several years, and we still had faith in the US justice system. We knew that the perpetrators of this crime would have to face their punishment one day because they were wrong to take our money, dignity, and land.

After this long and difficult struggle we are told that all criminal charges are dismissed, even though some of the accused had already pled guilty. After years and years of investigation, we were mortified to hear this news just a month before trial. We were ready to face the wrongdoers, ready to go to the courthouse in Honolulu to confront Motti, Pranee, Sam, and all the rest of them about what they had done to us. We wanted justice.

We are sorry that this case has come to an abrupt end without ever being tried. We are especially sorry because we know what we have undergone and what we are still enduring today because of Global and nothing is ever going to change that fact.

The Thai Farm Workers

About the author


Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.