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Labor Contractor Liable for Farmworker Abuses in Hawaii

By Roy Maurer  3/24/2014
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A California-based farm-labor contractor was found liable for discrimination, harassment and physical abuse of hundreds of Thai workers at six Hawaii farms.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the charges against Los Angeles-based Global Horizons, which has been defending itself against charges of national-origin and race discrimination, harassment, retaliation and human trafficking at farms in Hawaii and Washington since 2010.

The EEOC’s civil case follows the Justice Department’s failed criminal prosecution of Global Horizons in a case the agency  dropped in 2012 on a legal technicality.

A November trial has been set to determine the company’s financial damages. The EEOC has said it will seek the maximum compensation for each victim under federal law—about $300,000 per person, or $159 million for all 530 claimants.

One of the six farms named in the Hawaii lawsuit, Del Monte Fresh Produce, settled in November 2013 for $1.2 million. The EEOC is finalizing settlements with four other farms. The case against Maui Pineapple Co. is ongoing.

A companion case in Washington against Global Horizons and two farms there will go to trial on Sept. 15.

‘Deprived of Basic Necessities’

The EEOC asserted that between 2003 and 2007, Global Horizons recruited Thai nationals through the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program to work on farms, where they harvested a variety of produce, from pineapples to coffee beans. High recruitment fees created an insurmountable debt for the Thai workers, according to the agency. The EEOC charged that when the workers reached the U.S., Global Horizons confiscated their passports and threatened to deport anyone who complained. 

According to the charges, the workers were forced to live in dilapidated housing infested with rats and insects, sleeping dozens to a room, many without beds. They were forbidden from leaving the premises. On the job, they endured screaming, threats and physical assaults from supervisors and were isolated from non-Thai farmworkers, who appeared to have more tolerable conditions. “Bound by their debts, stripped of their identification and silenced by the perpetrators, the Thai workers had little recourse until the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles brought victims to the EEOC to file charges of discrimination,” the agency said.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi cited examples of physical abuse, exploitation and repressive security measures.

In the judgment, Kobayashi said “that Global Horizons subjected the Claimants to physical and verbal harassment based on Claimants’ race and/or national origin in order to secure the Claimants’ compliance and obedience and based upon stereotypical beliefs about Thai workers.” The judgment states that discriminatory “disparate treatment of Thai workers was Global Horizons’ standard operating procedure.” Kobayashi found that the Thai workers were often paid less, forced into less desirable and more demeaning jobs, and denied breaks, though they worked longer hours than non-Thai workers.

“It was pretty bad,” EEOC attorney Anna Park told Honolulu TV newscaster KITV4. “They were hit. They were threatened. They were deprived of basic necessities. It is very important we stand up and say this is not acceptable.”

Park said the ruling vindicates the workers who suffered discrimination and fraud and lived in fear of deportation.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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