Records: Hawaii farm owners to plead guilty to importing Thai nationals for forced labor

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Records: Hawaii farmers to admit forced labor

HONOLULU — The owners of Hawaii’s second-largest fruit and vegetable farm will plead guilty to charges of importing laborers from Thailand to force them to work, court records show.

Aloun Farms President Alec Souphone Sou and his brother, Aloun Farms Vice President Mike Mankone Sou, were expected to admit in court Wednesday to conspiring with Thai labor recruiters to bring 44 Thai nationals to Hawaii, according to their plea agreements.

An indictment also alleged the workers were enticed to come to Aloun Farms with false promises of lucrative jobs and kept working amid economic threats.

Many of the laborers were told not to leave the farm after work, and 11 were housed in mobile storage containers while working for Aloun, the federal government claimed.

“Aloun representatives instructed the Thai workers not to socialize with outsiders, particularly Laotians, and not to leave the compound after they returned from work,” the plea deals said.

The laborers each borrowed $16,000 to pay “recruitment fees” to Thai businessmen for the Hawaii jobs, according to court records. Those debts were secured with family property and homes, which workers feared they would lose if they couldn’t repay the debts.

Some workers received no net earnings for months because of payroll deductions and were told they’d be sent home to Thailand “if they were disobedient, failed to follow directions or if they tried to leave,” the documents state.

The Sou brothers were indicted in August on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude from April 2003 to February 2005. Their plea agreements call for them to plead guilty to one count each of conspiracy to commit forced labor.

They originally faced maximum sentences of 15 years in prison, but it wasn’t clear what their sentence would be under the plea deal.

“Both brothers are going to help the government go after the people in Thailand who made false promises to the workers,” said Eric Seitz, Mike Sou’s attorney. “Both brothers became caught up in a web of regulatory problems. We deny categorically that we did anything to abuse or harm anyone.”

A message left for Howard Luke, an attorney for Alec Sou, was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Kapolei-based Aloun Farms is known for supplying a variety of Asian vegetables, melons and other produce to the state’s largest wholesalers and grocers.

It employs as many as 200 workers and covers about 3,000 acres. Its annual gross sales are about $8 million.

Information from: The Honolulu Advertiser,

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