Farm owners plead guilty to forced labor charges


POSTED: Thursday, January 14, 2010

Forty-four agricultural workers from Thailand were forced to work on Aloun Farm for wages lower than what they were promised and required by law, said Kevonne Small, trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

Some were forced to live in a storage container on the farm, and none could leave because the farm owners kept their passports, Small said.

Aloun Farm owners Alec and Mike Sou pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to conspiring to commit forced labor in connection with the importation of the workers in 2004.

Each faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when they are sentenced in June. However, the government will ask the court for a lighter sentence because they have accepted responsibility for their actions, according to their plea agreements. The government also promises to seek further sentence reductions based on the value of the brothers' cooperation in the ongoing federal investigation into the recruitment and employment of Thai agricultural workers.

The Sous have also agreed to pay $8,000 restitution to each of the 24 agricultural workers the government has located. The $8,000 is half of the upfront recruitment fee each worker paid to get the jobs at Aloun Farm.

The investigation and prosecution of the Sous started last year when one of the 44 workers told his story to a counselor at Susannah Wesley Community Center in Kalihi, said immigration lawyer Clare Hanusz. The counselor referred the worker to Hanusz, who said she referred the case to the FBI.

She and another lawyer, Melissa Vincenty, represent 22 of the workers.

The Sous imported the workers under the guise of the U.S. Department of Labor's guest worker program for temporary and seasonal agricultural workers. The program prohibits collecting recruitment commissions from workers and requires employers to pay for the workers' airfare to the U.S., other required transportation, their housing, food or access to groceries and cooking facilities.

Alec Sou said he believed “;it's OK for recruiters to collect fees in Asia but not in the U.S.”;

According to the Sous' indictment, the recruitment fees were used to pay for the workers' airfare and visa applications. The rest was split among recruiters in Thailand and California, others who facilitated the importation and the Sous.

The government said the workers secured loans to pay the recruitment fees using their homes and subsistence farmlands.

Hanusz said most of the 44 workers were married with children when they arrived. She said the stress of losing their homes and land broke up some of their marriages.