Government officials called it the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history. Global Horizons Inc., a labor recruiting company based in Los Angeles, was accused of keeping 600 Thai farmworkers in conditions of forced labor by putting them in debt, confiscating their passports and threatening deportation. Out of eight labor contractors indicted, three pled guilty. The government seized 226 boxes of paper and 73 hard drives to examine for evidence, and had evidence from hundreds of witnesses.
According to the prosecution, the workers came to the United States as part of the federal agricultural guest worker program. Recruiters promised them decent housing and hours and good salaries, and promised them work for up to three years. The workers had to pay a substantial recruitment fee of $9,000 to up to $21,000, but the promised wages would have been more than enough to pay back the loans workers had to take out to pay the fees. But the hours were long and the wages were low – and sometimes nonexistent, as workers were frequently not paid on time, not paid for all their hours, or not paid for weeks or months worth of labor. The employment contracts signed in Thailand were not honored. The housing conditions were often appalling; there were cases of workers being crammed into shipping containers without plumbing or air conditioning, while guards sometimes monitored the area to make sure no one escaped. Workers were afraid of voicing their complaints both because they faced threats of violence and because they were afraid of deportation, in which case they would not be able to pay back the debts that resulted from the recruitment fees.
But on July 20, the Justice Department dropped the charges, offering no reasons except for a vague claim that dismissal of the matter “is in the interest of justice” because the government is unable to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.
Global Horizons’ chief executive Mordechai Orian has maintained his innocence throughout the case, accusing the workers of lying in order to stay in America, where they can earn more than they would earn in Thailand. He also claimed that several high-ranking government officials have been conspiring to ruin his business and his life, and that the attorneys coached the Thai farmworkers to lie in their testimony.
While we don’t know yet – and may never know, says Clare Hanusz, an attorney representing many of the Thai workers – why the Justice Department decided to drop the case, the decision was not about innocence. Orian has not been vindicated; he has not been found not guilty. The Thai workers, despite Orian’s denial of wrongdoings, are still considered to have been trafficked, and a civil case, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will continue to go through. And connections between this case and a previous trafficking case that was also dropped strongly suggest the possibility that this case was simply mishandled.
The Sou brothers, owners of Aloun Farms faced similar accusations to the defendants in the Global Horizons case. The Sous were charged with visa fraud, obstruction of justice, and forced labor. According to the charges, the workers took out loans to pay high fees to come to the United States, having been promised three years of work in Hawaii. Instead, they were given only five months worth of work, underpaid and forced to live in storage containers. But the case began to fall apart when the prosecution admitted to having misstated the law to the grand jury, and the lead prosecutor, who was responsible for the mistake, stepped down as a result of unrelated health problems. The judge denied a request to delay the trial, and soon after, the Justice Department dropped the charges.
The connection between the two cases goes beyond the similarities between the accusations and the disheartening results. Orian had in fact previously worked with the Sou brothers and Aloun Farms; the first Thai workers Global Horizons brought to Hawaii were brought through a partnership with Aloun Farms. The two cases were handled by the same prosecution team. And Nanda Chitre, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said in a statement that the motion for dismissal was “based on an additional review of the evidence following the August 2011 dismissal” of the case against the Sous.
If the case was mishandled – something we cannot be sure of without more clarity from the Justice Department – then that leaves 600 exploited workers without justice. The dismissal, Hanusz suggested, may also negatively impact the EEOC case, putting at risk the workers’ ability to get the restitution needed to pay off the recruitment fees. It’s a frustrating reminder of how hard it is for immigrant workers to have their voices heard in the United States and how frequently they are denied dignity and respect.
Editorial Note- A reader pointed out to us that the lead prosecutor in this case, Susan French, could be seen as a convenient scapegoat for the failures of a system, an observation we take to heart. We are acutely aware that there is more to this story than has been reported, and we are following its development. While we have successfully collaborated with DOJ prosecutors in the past, as have many of our colleagues in the anti-trafficking direct service field, Break the Chain believes that in spite of the potential harm to these relationships, it is critical for advocates to press for explanations and remedies. Failures on the part of our government, or reluctance to pursue difficult cases, have devastating impacts on trafficked and exploited workers who take monumental risks to come forward to report to law enforcement, and hinder our ability as advocates to help these workers access justice. –Tiffany Williams