By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. federal agency has sued over unequal treatment of more than 500 workers from India recruited to work at shipyards in Mississippi and Texas and over 200 Thai farm laborers brought to Hawaii and Washington state, officials said on Wednesday.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the workers were forced to live in substandard housing and exploited with fees, so that some had net earnings of nearly nothing.
The EEOC said the treatment of the Thai and Indian workers amounted to human trafficking, even though they were brought to the country with work visas.
"Foreign workers should be treated as equals when working in the United States, not as second-class citizens," said Olophius Perry, Los Angeles district director for the EEOC.
Last year Mordechai Orian, the head of the labor firm that recruited the Thai farm workers, was arrested and charged in federal court with forced labor conspiracy.
The EEOC said in lawsuits filed on Tuesday that Orian's Beverly Hills-based Global Horizons Inc recruited the Thai laborers to work on six farms in Hawaii and two in Washington state between 2003 and 2007.
The workers earned about $8.50 to $9.50 an hour to harvest crops, but many of them were forced to pay recruitment fees of between $12,000 and $25,000, EEOC officials said.
Some of the workers had to take out high interest loans and were charged for lodging and food, officials said.
But Michael Green, a Hawaii-based attorney for Orian, disputed the claims.
"The conditions were fine and Orian would never allow anything different," Green said. "The people who came here were paid, they were not living in squalor or bad conditions, they were paid more money than they ever were in Thailand, and they enjoyed their work."
Orian, an Israeli national, is under electronic monitoring as the federal criminal case against him progresses.
"They were nickeled and dimed to the point where they really didn't have any pay," said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC Los Angeles office.
Some of them were forced to live in crowded conditions amid rats and insects, according to the EEOC. Workers of other nationalities on the same farms were not subject to the same kind of treatment, Park said.
Also, workers had their passports taken and were threatened with deportation if they complained, officials said.
EEOC officials said some of the Thai workers have returned to their home country, and that the total number of workers affected could number 400. Some of the workers were given visas for victims of human trafficking, but EEOC officials would not say how many won that designation.
In the case of the 500 Indian workers, the EEOC alleged in a lawsuit in Mississippi that Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International LLC subjected them to segregated facilities and discriminatory treatment.
The Indian men paid recruiters up to $20,000 to come to the United States. When they arrived they were forced to pay rent for crowded housing in fenced camps, according to the EEOC.
(Editing by Greg McCune)