Aloun Farms Forced Labor Case Goes to Trial

by Staff on July 28, 2011

Were Thai workers on Aloun Farms forced to and live and work in inhumane conditions?

Hawaii agriculture is big news in Thailand.  But sadly, this news is not about our “slow food” movement or the health and economic benefits of island grown produce.  International media outlets, such as the Bangkok Post, are reporting on Hawaii’s Aloun Farms and their allegedly illegal and inhumane treatment of farm workers from Thailand.

This week marks the beginning of a federal trial for Alec and Mike Sou, the two brothers who run Aloun Farms.  The Sous are accused of forced labor and human trafficking, and face a dozen charges each, including visa fraud conspiracy.

The brothers brought Thai workers to Hawaii under the U.S. agricultural guest-worker program that is meant to allow U.S. agricultural employers to “bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature” at times when they anticipate a shortage of domestic workers.

But prosecutors believe that 44 of these workers were charged exorbitant recruitment fees, promised higher wages than they were given, forced to live in metal containers, and treated inhumanely.  The Thai workers claim that they were told if they complained about the living or working conditions, they would be sent home to Thailand.  With debt of recruitment fees still on their shoulders, the workers knew if they returned home early, they would lose their homes and land.

Some workers reported they even felt suicidal from the pressure. In a recent Bangkok Post article, one worker explained, “”No one wanted to speak up because we didn’t want to be sent home.  There was a lot of pressure. I felt suicidal, like I wanted to hang myself, because there was no way to repay my debt”.

The Sou brothers are refuting the workers’ claims, insisting that the workers were never threatened or harmed, were free to leave at any time, and that their debt in Thailand was not the Sous’ responsibility.

But the Sous must have felt some responsibility – or at the very least, some sense of guilt – as the pair previously pled guilty under a plea agreement in January of 2010.  In their plea, they admitted to violating the U.S. agricultural guest-worker program, but denied using tactics of mistreatment, underpayment, and withholding of workers’ passports to force them to continue working at Aloun Farms.

When the brothers disputed some of the facts of the case, Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the plea agreement.  In turn, the brothers withdrew their guilty plea, forcing the case to go to trial.

If convicted, the brothers could face up to 20 years in prison without parole.  Supporters of the Sous have asked for lenient sentencing, insisting that if the Sous were put in prison, the state would suffer, as it relies heavily on foods supplied by the 3,000 acre Aloun Farms.  Certainly, food security is a great concern in our isolated islands.  But with the world watching, wouldn’t we be wise to do what is right?  If the Sou brothers are, in fact, found guilty – of human trafficking, forced labor, conspiracy or otherwise – they should face the lawful consequences of their actions.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas August 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Very biased reporting of this case to date … there is a big difference between being guilty of violating visa program and human trafficking. As soon as these thai workers got laid off for a few months because the work their visas were approved for they start talking to attorneys who tell them the easiest way to get a green card and food stamps and welfare is to accuse your employer of abuse etc and then we’ll pay for getting your family to america and give you free housing etc… What do you think they are going to do? The visa program is screwed up because it only allows for temporary seasonal work. Employers in the us don’t have any control over what promises are made to the workers by the employment recruiters in Thailand. It’s another screwed up government program and usa business owners get thrown in jail for trumped up charges initiated by ambulance chasing attorneys. Just an opinion!!!

Staff August 15, 2011 at 9:46 am

Mahalo for your thoughts, Thomas. I agree that it is difficult for local farm owners to know the details of the recruiting process in Thailand, and as such, cannot be held accountable for the actions of the Thailand-based recruiters. I think you are correct in suggesting that the problem may lie with the program. Perhaps this case will cause officials to take another look at the program and take steps to improve it.

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