By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 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 contends the workers were forced to live in substandard housing and exploited with fees, to the point where 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, district director for the EEOC Los Angeles district office.
This is not the first legal action brought on behalf of the workers. 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.
In the case of those workers, the EEOC said in lawsuits filed on Tuesday in Hawaii and Washington state 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 ranging from pineapples to coffee beans, 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 or mortgage their ancestral lands in Thailand, and they were charged for lodging and food, officials said.
"They were nickeled and dimmed to the point where they really didn't have any pay," said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC Los Angeles office.
Also, workers had their passports taken and were threatened with deportation if they complained, officials said.
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.
An attorney for Orian could not be reached for comment.
Orian, an Israeli national, is under electronic monitoring as the federal criminal case against him progresses.
EEOC officials said that some of the Thai workers have returned to their home country, and that the total number of workers affected could number 400.
In the case of the 500 Indian workers, the EEOC alleged in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in Mississippi that Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International LLC subjected the welders and pipe-fitters to segregated facilities and discriminatory treatment.
The Indian men paid recruiters up to $20,000 to come to the United States, and when they arrived at Signal shipyards in late 2006 and early 2007, they were forced to pay rent for crowded housing in fenced labor camps, according to the EEOC.
In some cases, 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets, the EEOC said.
A Signal representative did not return calls.
In both the cases of the Thai and Indian workers, the EEOC has sued under the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it is seeking back pay, compensatory damages and injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination.
Kay Buck, the head of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, was involved in dealing with the case of the Thai workers, and she equated their treatment to slavery.
"Human trafficking is really the modern day continuation of slavery," she said.
(Editing by Greg McCune)