HONOLULU (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that a California-based labor contractor must pay $8.7 million in damages to Thai workers who were exploited while working at Hawaii farms, but it's not clear whether any of them will get the money.
Mordechai Orian, former president of Global Horizons, said Monday that the Los Angeles company is no longer in business and has no way to pay.
"We will fight this ridiculous decision," he said, calling the amount "insane."
Orian continued to deny workers were mistreated.
"We paid those guys to the last penny they worked for," he said. "We tried to keep legal farming in the United States alive, and this is the thanks we get."
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 against Global Horizons and six Hawaii farms. It alleged workers were subjected to discrimination, uninhabitable housing, insufficient food, inadequate wages and deportation threats. Five farms settled for a total of $3.6 million.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi issued the ruling against Global Horizons on Friday.
Anna Park, EEOC trial attorney in Los Angeles, said the agency is pleased but the next challenge will be getting money from Global Horizons.
Kobayashi ruled previously that the company is liable for the discrimination and abuse of the workers.
The contractor sought impoverished Thai nationals, whom they stereotyped to be docile and compliant, the EEOC said, and charged them fees ranging from $9,500 to $26,000. The workers were given overcrowded housing often infested with bed bugs, and some workers resorted to making primitive slingshots so they could catch chickens to eat, the agency said.
Kobayashi's ruling awards $150,000 each for 82 claimants, coming from the $3.6 million in settlements and the $8.7 million Global Horizons is liable for. She found that the last remaining farm that didn't settle — Maui Pineapple Co. — is jointly liable for $8.1 million of the $8.7 million. The company couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
"The million dollar question is whether they'll ever see any of it," Clare Hanusz, an attorney who represents a large group of the workers with their immigration matters, said of the award. "I'd be surprised if there really was no money, though. I think it's very carefully hidden."
The company has no assets and couldn't afford to continue litigation, so it agreed to allow Kobayashi to issue a default judgment without going to trial, said Javier Lopez Perez, an attorney representing Global Horizons. The company plans to appeal, he said.
The money would be life-changing for the workers, many of whom continue to work in agriculture, Hanusz said.
"While I truly hope that the victims receive all the money they're entitled to, I think they'll also be happy the judgment validates their claims," she said.
Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .