A young man is recruited by a labor agency to head east. Convinced that working on farms in Hawaii would make him more money, he signs a three-year contract with the agency, takes out a loan to pay for the travel expenses and leaves his country.
He ends up on Oahu with workers from his own country. He lives in substandard housing infested with rats and insects. He is told by his supervisors that if he doesn't follow the rules, he'll be deported. His wages are too low to pay off his loan. Desperate and scared, he runs off the farm and becomes homeless in Honolulu.
This is not campaign literature for a local politician talking about his or her ancestors. Samphong Medera was recruited from Thailand in 2003 and is one of many Thai workers accusing local farms of dehumanizing abuse and degrading conditions.
They say that after arriving in Hawaii their passports were confiscated and they had to sleep on the floor with other workers. Twenty-six people shared a single bathroom. A field supervisor (known around here as the luna) used a gun and a baseball bat to enforce a curfew on workers. One laborer claims he was hit with a stick in order to make him work faster.
The stories from the Thais are a horrible throwback to the early days of industrial agriculture in Hawaii. They managed to get the attention of the federal government but surprisingly almost no one else.
In 2010, the Department of Justice started investigating some of the farms in Hawaii and their labor recruiters. At first, the feds tried to prosecute the companies and business leaders with criminal charges. They indicted two brothers who run a local farm on Oahu.
Workers came to the Sou brothers' Aloun Farms in Kapolei after taking a loan to get there, and the plan was to pay it off through wages. But once there, they said, they were underpaid, released in just five months, and were forced to live in a storage container near the jobsite. Mick and Alec Sou vehemently denied these claims.
The brothers were looking at decades in prison if found guilty. It looked like a showdown in federal court, but the Sous decided to take a plea deal and pleaded to the offenses of visa fraud and forced labor. As the Sous geared up for sentencing, an outpouring of support came from prominent members in the community. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano wrote a letter in their support. Community leaders pointed out that the Sous themselves were immigrants (they come from Laos) and that Alec Sou was an advocate for helping the homeless.
But the sentencing never happened. Federal prosecutors dropped all charges and the judge allowed the Sous to withdraw their pleas. Why the about-face? The feds said that they made a mistake when advising the grand jury about the law. The federal prosecutors - who flew in from Washington - moved to dismiss the charges (even though the Sous pleaded guilty) and then left the islands.
But the feds were not done yet.
Mordechai Orian runs Global Horizons, an L.A.-based labor recruiting business. Global Horizons sent hundreds of workers from Thailand, Micronesia and the Philippines to agricultural companies all across the state - including Aloun Farms - over the past decade. Again, as with the Sou prosecution, workers accused the company and its client farms of abusive supervisors, deceptive labor contracts and bad working conditions.
Instead of seeking criminal charges, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Global Horizons and six farms in Hawaii. This time a federal judge found them liable for discrimination and responsible for bad working conditions.
This week it was announced that more farms settled. Mac Farms, Kalena Farms, Captain Cook Coffee Co. and Kauai Coffee Co. have all agreed to pay amounts ranging from $100,000 to $1.6 million.
There's only one farm that hasn't, and trial is scheduled in November - our own Maui Pineapple Co., the same company that has links to the original Maui Land & Pineapple Co.
Our local culture owes a great deal to the mass migration of agricultural laborers. Politicians love to invoke the image of Japanese, Korean or Filipino workers who arrived to the islands to toil in sugar and pineapple fields. Their descendants moved on to become prominent members of the middle and professional classes.
To think that appalling working conditions on farms in Hawaii are still happening is deeply troubling. Then again, the farmers and the labor recruiters deny these claims. Who's right? Maybe a trial will illuminate some of these things.
What is certain, however, is that despite these stories and despite the vehement denials, the plight of the Thai workers has failed to capture the imagination or interest of most folks in Hawaii. Given our islands' labor history, the local apathy is just as troubling as the stories themselves.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."