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

But the job offer came with a catch — a big one. Tin was told he would have to pay an up-front "recruitment fee" of 450,000 baht, or $14,516 U.S. dollars. (Current Thai law allows a $2,000 maximum for such fees, but it is often exceeded by people desperate for jobs.)

Tin figured that even with the fee he could make $55,000 in profit over the three years, so he decided to sign up. To pay the recruitment fee, he borrowed all that a bank would lend at reasonable interest rates. But that was not enough, so he had to borrow most of the total from a "private lender," who charged a hefty 80 percent annual interest rate for the loan.

Bon paid a higher recruitment fee of $17,700, and also paid 80 percent interest on much of it. Chan and Rong paid fees of about $24,000 each. Chan had loans with up to 152 percent annual interest, and Rong had loans of up to an astronomical 792 percent annual interest.

"We had to put up the title of our farmland and other collateral to borrow money," Bon says.

And it was not just their land. They also talked extended family members into putting up their lands as collateral to raise enough money for the high recruitment fees.

That meant if they ever lost their U.S. jobs, they would likely default on those loans — and their extended family members could become homeless without a way to feed themselves.

Rong became justifiably nervous at the airport on the way to America. Just before he and others were to board their airplane, the recruiters asked them to sign a stack of contract papers.

"There was no time to read what we were signing. Many sheets that I remember signing were just blank with nothing on it," Rong says.

He says some protested. "But the recruiters would say, 'Would you like to go to work?' If they refused to sign those papers, they said, 'Then you can't go.' I had put up much money already, and I couldn't take a chance to lose the opportunity to come here" — because he could not risk losing the family farms.

So he signed the papers and flew to America. When he arrived, Global Horizons officials collected the workers' passports at the airport.

"They said it was for safekeeping," Rong says. But he later found that it would prevent him from having ID needed to move around freely, or to return home if he wanted.

The workers say they arrived legally in America at different times in 2004 and 2005 with H-2A visas for agricultural work. Such visas are good only as long as workers remain with the employer that obtained them, which in this case was Global Horizons. If workers tried to leave Global, they would lose their legal status.

Workers were sent to farms nationwide and at first were not in Utah (where their slavery story later would worsen and then end).

The first few months in America were good, with plenty of work and on-time pay. Then problems began. Pay started coming late. Workers calling home found that Global Horizons had not transferred money as promised, meaning loan sharks were harassing families. Then some workers had no work at all, and no pay.

Rong says he was with a group that had been picking apples but ran out of work. "So they said, 'We're going to have to send you home to Thailand for no more than a few months and you can come back.' "

To make sure they would not run away before they were sent home, "They kept us in a hotel room and we were surrounded by security guards."

On the way to the airport to be returned to Thailand, "They put us in a school bus, and there was a security car in front and another in back. I felt like a prisoner." He adds the officers were not needed. "I wouldn't dare to escape because I owed so much money at home" and depended on Global Horizons to earn it.

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