Farms ensnared in federal lawsuit
Federal agency sues labor contractor, eight farms for abusive employment
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The federal government is suing a Hawaiian farm for violating the civil rights of farmworkers even though the company fired the labor contractor accused of perpetuating the abuses.
Several other farms targeted by the government, including two in Washington state, were also previously involved in contractual disputes with the labor broker.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed legal complaints against labor contractor Global Horizons and eight farm operations in Hawaii and Washington. The agency claims the companies engaged in unlawful employment practices by discriminating against farmworkers from Thailand who came to the U.S. on temporary work visas.
An attorney for Mordechai Orian, the head of Global Horizons, denies his client committed any wrongdoing against the farmworkers. Orian is also facing criminal charges in the matter.
"I don't think there was anything promised that they didn't get," said Michael Jay Green, Orian's attorney.
According to EEOC, Global Horizons charged at least 200 Thai men "exorbitant recruiting fees" to come to the U.S., then unlawfully confiscated their passports and identification.
"Global subjected the claimants to uninhabitable housing, insufficient food and kitchen facilities, inadequate pay, significant gaps in work" and threats from supervisors, the complaint said.
These allegations are similar to claims made against the same labor broker five years ago by Kelena Farms, a produce grower in Kunia, Hawaii, that's now being sued by EEOC.
According to the farm's complaint, Global Horizons breached its contractual duties by failing to pay workers adequate and timely wages, comply with labor laws and provide workers with sufficient "water, ice, food and lavatories."
Kelena Farms said the labor contractor's violations "were so substantial and fundamental as to defeat the object of the parties in making the agreement," effectively forcing the farm to rescind the contract.
Global Horizons filed a counterclaim against Kelena Farms, alleging the company refused to continue employing its workers in July 2006, nearly half a year before the contract was supposed to expire.
"Kelena's actions were not legally warranted," the counterclaim said.
After litigating for about a year, both parties agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice, which bars further action, but without giving a reason.
In 2009, two farms operating in Yakima County, Wash. -- Valley Fruit Orchards and Green Acre Farms -- filed a complaint against Global Horizons for breach of contract. These farms are also named in the EEOC's lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Global Horizons acted as a labor broker for the farms even though it wasn't licensed by the state to perform such services.
Under Washington law, using an unlicensed broker exposed the farms to liability when Global Horizons was later sued by farmworkers for violating labor laws, the complaint said.
Earlier this month, a federal judge entered a judgment of more than $440,000 against Global Horizons to compensate the farms for damages from litigation.
Last year, Del Monte Fresh Produce -- which owns a Hawaiian farm targeted by the EEOC -- won a similar lawsuit against Global Horizons.
Del Monte had claimed the broker violated its contract by refusing to cover the costs associated with the EEOC's pending legal action against the farm.
The disputes between Global Horizons and its customers were irrelevant to the EEOC's decision whether to bring charges against the farms, said Christine Park-Gonzalez, a program analyst for the agency.
"That doesn't impact our decision," she said.
Even if workers are actually employed by a labor broker, a farmer is considered a joint employer if he exercises control over their day-to-day activities, said Michael Farrell, supervisory trial attorney for EEOC.
In such cases, farmers need to immediately remedy any civil rights abuses by the broker or they can be held responsible for the conduct, he said. "Farms need to be aware they can be liable for their labor contractor's actions."
When asked if firing a labor broker would be a sufficient remedy, Farrell said the actions of each farm would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
"I can't say as a blanket rule what would or would not be enough," he said.