An administrative law judge has ordered a Los Angeles-based farm labor contractor to pay more than $340,000 for failing to properly treat and pay Thai farmworkers in Hawaii, the latest blow to a company that has faced federal government scrutiny for alleged human trafficking violations.
The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday announced the May 6 ruling against Global Horizons Inc., whose president and other officials are facing criminal prosecution in Hawaii on accusations of exploiting Thai workers in what the FBI has called the country's largest human trafficking case.
The company also has been subject to at least four separate labor cases and a federal lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In a 146-page decision, Administrative Law Judge William Dorsey ordered Global Horizons to pay about $152,000 in back wages to 88 temporary farmworkers and $194,000 in fines. Dorsey found the company failed to pay employees for all their work on two Hawaii farms in 2003 and retaliated against those who complained, among other violations.
The decision also bars Global Horizons _ which is not currently operating _ from using the federal government's temporary farmworker program for the next three years.
"These workers left their families and homes with the expectation that they would be treated fairly and paid properly," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement.
Mordechai Orian, the company's president, denied the allegations and said he has appealed the ruling.
"This is not true. We paid them," Orian told the Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday. The workers were unionized and their interests were protected, he said.
Global Horizons recruited foreign workers under the federal government's agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A. The company was barred from using the program for three years in another labor ruling in 2006, and has not operated since, Orian said.
Orian, who had been under house arrest in Hawaii but has since been granted more freedom including permission to travel to Los Angeles, said he believes there has been a conspiracy by business and other interests to quash the program, noting it costs farms less to hire illegal immigrants than to bring them here on legitimate visas.
"Human trafficking is children, women and prostitution. It has nothing to do with people coming on visas to America," Orian said.
Last month, the EEOC filed a lawsuit seeking back pay and up to $300,000 in damages for each of 200 Thai workers in Washington state and Hawaii who claimed Global Horizons lured them with promises of steady jobs but confiscated their passports and threatened to deport them if they complained about conditions, including rat-infested rooms and physical abuse in the fields.
Thai community advocates fought to obtain special trafficking visas for some of the workers, who had undertaken exorbitant debts in Thailand to make the trip only to find they were not given the jobs or wages they were promised.
Orian questioned the federal government's use of these visas, arguing the prospect of a green card is an incentive for workers to file trafficking complaints. He said his company held onto workers' passports with the knowledge of U.S. and Thai officials to ensure their immigration paperwork was current while in the United States.
Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, said in other cases she has worked on she has seen employers abdicate responsibility.
"We get this all the time when people get caught," she said.