A story of modern slavery in Utah

Thais tricked, trapped and imported here to be slaves

Published: Saturday, Aug. 14 2010 10:00 p.m. MDT

Circle Four Farms near Milford, Utah.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Chan, a short man but strong from a lifetime of labor in rice fields, tells how he blundered into a trap when he left Thailand to work abroad. In fact, the U.S. government officially calls him, in diplomatic parlance, a victim of "human trafficking."

Chan is more blunt. "We were slaves," he says about himself and scores of fellow Thai workers.

He says their employer controlled their movement. If they failed to work long and hard, the employer could ensure that their families back home would lose everything. Housing lacked enough heat in freezing winters and air conditioning in scorching summers. They repeatedly went hungry and even trapped wild birds to subsist.

That did not occur in Sudan, Burma or some other infamous Third World slavery abyss.

It happened in Utah — from 2005 to 2007 for a group of workers from Thailand who eventually managed to get help, freedom and a new life in America.

With their experiences as a starting base, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating what could become the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.

At the center of scrutiny is Global Horizons, a Los Angeles-based company that recruited people in Thailand for farm work in the United States. It eventually placed some of them with two Utah companies: Circle Four pig farms in Milford and at Delta Eggs chicken farms in Delta.

Chan, Bon, Tin and Rong — all pseudonyms because they and their lawyer fear extended families in Thailand could be targeted because they are talking to the press — look like Americans now.

The skinny men wear polo shirts or T-shirts, blue jeans and sneakers. Their haircuts are American-style. They grin as they talk about America and its opportunities, sounding like politicians on the Fourth of July. One of their T-shirts even says "American Tradition" and has an eagle on it. Tin just came from a job interview in the land of opportunity.

They share their stories while seated around a polished conference table at Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit that gives legal aid to the poor. They say that agency and attorney Alex McBean rescued them and won them "T visas" from the Department of Homeland Security as victims of human trafficking. Those visas allow them to stay in America and seek permanent residency.

The four tell how they were conned into what sounded like a good deal to work in America, only to land in modern slavery in Utah. They became victims of human trafficking even though each had worked abroad previously without problems on farms and in factories in such countries as Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Israel.

Tin and Chan say they lived in villages that are about eight hours from Thailand's capital, Bangkok. "Life was very hard. Life revolves around rice farming. There are hardly any paying jobs. Just to raise rice is barely enough to feed the family," Tin says through an interpreter.

They say that after the annual rice harvest, many villagers go to Bangkok to seek jobs. Many also work abroad for a few years to help their extended family. Tin and Chan both remember the day that a recruiter for Global Horizons came to their villages.

"They told us about this high-paying job in the United States. You could make in one month what you would work for a year to make (in Thailand). It was very enticing, very exciting," Chan says. They were also told they would be legal workers protected by U.S. labor laws.

Tin added, "The pay was so high that I said, 'Wow, this could really elevate my situation. I could save money to send my children to school.' That is what I always wanted: to make sure my children get a better education."

Tin says he was promised $1,935 a month in wages — or $69,660 over a three-year contract.

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