Officials of a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based farm-labor contracting firm pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of conspiring to lure 600 Thai nationals to the United States to work on farms in Hawaii and Washington state, where they were subjected to severe abuse.
The Justice Department described the operation as the “largest human-trafficking scheme” it had ever prosecuted.
Bruce Schwartz, 53; Sam Wongsesanit, 40; and Shane Germann, 42, admitted conspiring to coerce the agricultural labor of the Thai nationals by fraudulently inducing them through their company, Global Horizons Inc., to incur substantial debts secured by their homes and family land, then confiscating their passports, and threatening to repatriate them to face destitution and homelessness if they stopped working.
Schwartz, the company’s former operations manager, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit forced labor. Germann, the firm’s Hawaii supervisor, and Wongsesanit, a supervisor at several farms in Hawaii, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit document servitude. Each faces up to five years in prison.
“Through successful prosecution of those who take advantage of immigrant workers, we strive to ensure that the United States continues to be a land of economic opportunity, as it has for generations of workers preceding them,” said U.S. Attorney Florence T. Nakakuni for the District of Hawaii.
In a superseding indictment unsealed Jan. 18, the three men were among eight persons charged in connection with a scheme to lure the Thai nationals to the United States between 2001 and 2007 under the federal agricultural guest-worker program.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed lawsuits in Hawaii and Washington against Global Horizons and eight farms, alleging that they engaged in a pattern or practice of national origin and race discrimination, harassment and retaliation in trafficking Thai male victims to farms in Hawaii and Washington.
The EEOC lawsuit said Global Horizons enticed Thai men into working at the farms with the false promises of steady, high-paying agricultural jobs, along with temporary visas allowing them to live and work in the U.S. legally.
The Thai workers were assigned to work at six farms in Hawaii and two in Washington harvesting a variety of crops, from pineapples to coffee beans, the lawsuit said. It also said the farms not only ignored abuses, but engaged in obvious mistreatment, intimidation, harassment and pay inequality.
At some farms, according to the lawsuit, the Thai workers were forced to live in dilapidated housing infested with rats and insects, with dozens sleeping in the same room, many with no beds. They were forbidden from leaving the premises. On the job, they endured screaming, threats and physical assaults from supervisors, and were isolated from non-Thai farmworkers who appeared to be working under more tolerable conditions, the lawsuit said.
“Bound by their debts, stripped of their identification and silenced by the perpetrators,” the EEOC said, the Thai workers had little recourse until the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles brought victims to the EEOC to file discrimination charges.
The EEOC filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Honolulu and U.S. District Court in Spokane, Wash., after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement. The lawsuit said the conduct constitutes retaliation and national origin and race discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It seeks back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of the victims.
“Human trafficking is one of the most insidious forms of discrimination,” said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOCs Los Angeles office. “The EEOC is committed to holding employers accountable for benefiting from the modern day enslavement of workers from other countries.”