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.