Suit seeks class-action status for Thai workers in Hawaii
YAKIMA, Wash. » A lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court here by three migrant farmworkers from Thailand against two local growers and a Los Angeles-based labor contractor, alleging that the workers were underpaid and housed in substandard conditions.
In the suit filed on Monday, some of the workers said they were forced to go into personal debt to get a job in the United States. They said they were promised work that didn't materialize.
Several alleged violations of state and federal law were outlined in the suit. It seeks class action status for all Thai workers brought to the Yakima Valley in 2004 and Hawaii in 2004-2005 to harvest fruit under the federal H-2A guest-worker program.
The suit was filed by lawyers for Ratthapon Yapunya, Somkhit Nasee and Wisit Kampilo. The trio was hired to work at Valley Fruit Orchards of Wapato and Green Acre Farms of Harrah in 2004 and 2005.
Both growers used the services of Global Horizons Manpower of Los Angeles. The company and its president, Mordechai Orian, were also named.
There were about 170 Thai workers in the Yakima Valley in 2004 and about 90 in 2005.
Calls by the Yakima Herald-Republic to Orian, John Verbrugge of Valley Fruit and Kevin Boyle of Green Acre Farms were not returned.
All three companies are facing a different suit filed last summer by local Hispanic workers, who allege they were illegally and intentionally displaced with workers from Thailand.
In 2005, the state revoked Global Horizons' farm-labor contractor license for failing to comply with a settlement agreement reached after various violations of state wage, insurance and safe-housing laws. The company has said it would appeal that decision.
In May, the U.S. Department of Labor ordered Global Horizons to pay nearly $300,000 in fines and back wages for allegedly deceiving and underpaying 88 Thai workers hired to harvest onions and pineapples in Hawaii.
Monday's suit states that Global Horizons authorized one of its agents in Thailand, a company called AACO International Recruiting Ltd., to find workers for the H-2A jobs. H-2A is the name of the temporary visa given to workers after employers have shown they cannot find U.S. workers for the job.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor certified 131 foreign workers for Green Acre Farms and 62 for Valley Fruit.
At the time of their recruitment and actual hire, the Thai workers said they were misled about wages and work periods.
According to the suit, the workers incurred costs ranging from $10,000 to $17,000 in various fees and travel expenses to obtain the jobs. They went into debt if they didn't have the money, the suit said.