Isle man accused
of ‘modern-day slavery’
were smuggled in and
worked under threats
A Waipahu businessman is on trial for allegedly smuggling Tongan nationals into Hawaii and forcing them to work for his landscaping businesses, keeping them in line with horrible beatings and threats of deportation.
The trial for Lueleni Fetongi Maka, 52, was to resume today in U.S. District Court in a case that federal prosecutors are describing as a case of "modern-day slavery."
He is charged with six counts each of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, forced labor, alien harboring, alien smuggling and five counts of unlawful use of documents.
Maka, a Tongan citizen living in the United States as a permanent resident, is accused of recruiting seven workers from Tonga between May 2001 up until January 2003 to work for him on Oahu.
Lured by Maka's offers of a better life, of work and pay to send back to their families in Tonga, the men -- in their late teens and 20s -- arrived here only to be exploited and forced to work through beatings and threats, federal prosecutors allege.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William Shipley described Maka as a boss who controlled where and how his workers lived, what they could do or where they could go when not working, when and how much they got paid -- if at all -- and who threatened to deport them if they got into trouble.
Maka allegedly took the workers' passports and identification, saying he would take care of all their travel and visa arrangements and expenses, but instead smuggled them into the United States using false passports, Shipley said. One was stopped at Honolulu Airport upon arrival using a fake passport and was deported.
Once in Hawaii, the workers were forced to live in squalid conditions on a pig farm Maka operated on Hakimo Road in Nanakuli, Shipley said.
They worked Monday through Friday from sunup to sundown, building rock walls and trimming trees sometimes as late as 9 p.m. On Sundays they were made to do work around the pig farm. They were paid between $100 to $200 a week, or sometimes not at all if Maka did not feel they worked hard enough, Shipley said.
The workers were not allowed to leave the farm, and they slept on makeshift beds made out of recycled doors in a run-down shack, Shipley said. Maka gave them food every week, but there was never enough for the six of them and their supply usually ran out before the end of the week, Shipley said.
Occasionally, the workers, who spoke little English and had no family here, would sneak away late to sleep at the homes of friends but would return before 5 a.m., when a work truck came for them.
According to the workers -- six of whom will testify during the five- to six-week trial before U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway -- the beatings occurred often and for any reason, and Maka used anything within reach as weapons, including a helium gas tank, a long knife used to shave hair off pigs, and other tools.
Some of the beatings were so severe, according to court documents, that some of the injured men could not work for a week or more after weathering Maka's wrath.
One resident who witnessed Maka's rage at a job site said the workers literally had to climb trees to escape, Shipley said. When confronted by the mother of a worker's girlfriend about the way he treated his workers, Maka responded, "That's the way it's done in Tonga -- that's the way the boys learn."
One of the witnesses expected to testify against Maka is Salesi Mahe, a defiant individual who turned fearful and obedient because of the beatings, Shipley said.
In one incident, Mahe decided not to work on a Saturday after Maka failed to pay him for previous Saturdays he had worked. The next day, Maka struck him in the ankles and lower leg with a framing pin.
That same evening, a defiant Mahe agreed to join co-workers at a barbecue without Maka's permission. Maka allegedly found out and beat him with a two-by-four.
In another incident, Maka punched Mahe through a passenger window, dragged him out of the car by his shirt collar and whipped him on his back with a metal cable, Shipley said. The beatings continued, including one incident at a condo complex witnessed by a resident who threatened to call police if Maka did not stop beating Mahe, Shipley said.
But Maka's defender paints a different picture.
Maka was not the perfect boss, and the living conditions weren't that great, but the workers stayed because they chose to stay and work under those conditions, said William Domingo, an assistant federal defender who is representing Maka. And they were willing to come to Hawaii so they could send money back to their families in Tonga.
Maka's accusers have been identified by the government as victims of human trafficking, Domingo said, which means that after three years they will be able to bring their families to the United States and remain here as permanent residents. They benefited by accusing Maka of mistreatment, he suggested.
Maka came to Hawaii in 1976, is the father of five and is a member of First United Methodist Church, where his wife is choir director. He started his own business in 1982 and used the pig farm in Nanakuli as a staging area for his businesses, Domingo said.
Sometime in 2002, Maka was gathering wood when he allegedly discovered marijuana plants on his Nanakuli farm. When he was told Francis Tautua'a, one of his workers, was responsible, Maka became angry because he could lose the lease on the farm if drugs were found, Domingo said. That is why he turned him in to immigration.
Tautua'a's arrest triggered an investigation by a smuggling unit in Immigration, which believed they had stumbled upon a human trafficking case. Five of the other workers were later questioned by Immigration.
"Here, you have the perfect match between government goals and goals of these boys to stay in Hawaii, earn money and send money back to Tonga so their families can survive," Domingo said.
But Maka's former workers paint a far different picture. Pita Ma'u, who was never beaten by Maka but witnessed many beatings against his fellow co-workers, allegedly heard his boss threaten to shoot any worker for not doing their job properly, and saw guns in his boss's truck. His fear of Maka was so great, he worked for five months without getting paid until Maka was arrested.
If convicted, Maka faces a maximum of 20 years on each of the counts of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, forced labor and unlawful use of documents. He faces a maximum of five years each on the remaining counts.