YAKIMA -- Calling it the largest human trafficking case to date in agriculture, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said this week that it has filed lawsuits on behalf of more than 200 Thai workers against a farm labor contractor and eight farms in Hawaii and Washington, including two in the Yakima Valley.
The Los Angeles office of the commission asserts that between 2003 and 2007, Global Horizons Inc. enticed Thai men into working at the farms with false promises of steady, high-paying agricultural jobs along with temporary visas allowing them to live and work in the U.S. legally.
But when the Thai workers reached the United States, the lawsuits contend, their passports were seized by Global Horizons officials who threatened them with deportation if they complained about their pay or living and working conditions.
Valley Fruit Orchards of Wapato and Green Acre Farms of Harrah, which used Global Horizons as a labor contractor to recruit 260 Thai workers in 2004, are named in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in Spokane.
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The EEOC claims the farms ignored abuses and participated in the mistreatment, intimidation, harassment and unequal pay of the Thai workers.
But the agency could have a hard time making the allegations stick to the local farms. In March 2008, U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley ruled in another case that neither Valley Fruit nor Green Acre was a joint employer of the Thai workers with Global Horizons.
On Wednesday, Brendan Monahan, the lawyer representing Valley Fruit and Green Acre, called the EEOC's allegations "pure fiction."
Global Horizons, Monahan said, handled the workers' payroll, set up their living accommodations, supervised them locally and acted in all manner as the employer.
"With respect to anything we knew about or could have known about, there is simply no basis to any of the allegations made in the complaint. These were not our employees, we did not have control over them," Monahan said.
He also said the EEOC did not file its complaint in a timely fashion.
Attempts to reach a spokesman for Global Horizons were unsuccessful.
In a separate legal case, Global's formerly high-profile president, Mordechai Orian, surrendered in September to the FBI in Honolulu, where he was held for a time without bail after pleading not guilty to federal charges of human trafficking.
Orian awaits trial on charges he imported the foreign workers, then mistreated them and failed to live up to promises. The FBI calls it the largest human trafficking case ever prosecuted in the United States.
Both farms distanced themselves from Global after the Los Angeles-based labor recruiter first ran into legal trouble several years ago for operating without an approved license from the state Department of Labor and Industries.