Labor company is liable for abuse — judge

A federal judge has found a California-based labor contractor liable for a pattern and practice of discrimination, harassment and retaliation against more than 500 Thai farmworkers.

Some of the workers had been employed at Maui Land & Pineapple Co.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi issued an order granting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s motion for partial summary judgment on its claims of misconduct against Global Horizons.

At Maui Pineapple Co., Kobayashi’s order discusses a worker being slapped on the head by a Global Horizons’ supervisor after the employee was accused of helping someone escape work. Also at Maui Pine, the order says a Global Horizons supervisor threatened workers with a gun and routinely carried a baseball bat during meetings and at the workers’ housing facility in order to enforce the curfew.

In April 2011, the commission filed the suit against Global Horizons and six farms in Hawaii, including Maui Land & Pineapple Co.

The suit alleged a pattern and practice of national origin and race discrimination, harassment and retaliation against Thai farmworkers who were brought into the U.S. to work under the guest worker visa program, according to an announcement from the commission.

The commission said high recruitment fees created a great debt for the Thai workers who faced abuses on the farms such as slapping, punching, humiliation, heavy surveillance and threats of being shot, deported or arrested.

A Maui Land & Pineapple Co. official could not be reached for comment Monday.

But in a quarterly report last year, officials said: “The company believes it has not been involved in any wrongdoing, disagrees with the charges and plans to vigorously defend itself.”

A Nov. 18 trial is set to determine how much Global Horizons will be ordered to pay for the abuses suffered by the Thai workers as well as measures Global will need to implement to prevent future abuses.

Also on that date, the case against ML&P will proceed in court. It is the only Hawaii company that has not yet settled civil lawsuits filed against it. The EEOC’s companion case in Washington state against Global Horizons and two farms there is ongoing and set for trial Sept. 15.

Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, which includes Southern California and Hawaii, said Monday afternoon that liabilities would be determined against Maui Pine in the federal jury trial case. If there are liabilities, then damages will be assessed as well.

She added that most of Maui Pine’s pre-trial defenses have been struck down by the judge.

Even though ML&P is no longer in the pineapple business, Park has said the commission is pursing claims against the longtime Maui company because it has a “responsibility” to be aware of its workers’ rights.

She reiterated that companies cannot claim that they didn’t “have anything to do” with the ill treatment of workers on their properties.

“I think the very reason we brought this case is to sort of hold companies liable,” Park said.

Other companies named in the original lawsuit are working on settlements or have settled the matter.

Del Monte Fresh Produce settled its lawsuit in November for $1.2 million along with extensive training and policy changes intended to safeguard the civil rights of farmworkers, the EEOC said. The other farms, Captain Cook Coffee Co., Kauai Coffee Co., Kelena Farms and MacFarms of Hawaii, have reached settlements in principle and are finalizing their settlements with the EEOC.

“The judge’s granting of judgment for liability vindicates the rights of the multitude of Thai farmworkers who survived inhumane abuses and discrimination at the hands of their employers who controlled not only their working conditions but where they lived, what they could eat and the basic right to move around freely,” Park said. “Employers will be held accountable for targeting workers for exploitation based on illegal stereotyping due to race or the country they come from.”

According to the original complaint, more than 100 Thai workers were sent to Maui Pineapple Co.’s Lahaina location from October 2004 to September 2005. Global supervisors oversaw the workers who harvested pineapple and did other work. Laborers worked from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the fields five to six days a week.

The complaint says more than 100 Thai workers were housed in a “building that resembled a rundown military barrack,” at which some were forced to sleep on the floor and others built their own beds out of wood. Some workers described their housing as infested with mosquitoes, “very dirty” and having no heat, fans or hot water.

In addition to being confined to the quarters with a Global supervisor guarding entrances and exits, the complaint alleges that Thai workers were paid less or not at all, assigned to more difficult jobs and required to do more work than other workers at Maui Pineapple. Workers also said they didn’t have enough food, according to the complaint.

Park said former Global Horizons workers are still scattered throughout Hawaii, with most of them wanting to go back to Thailand.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at