A story of modern slavery in Utah

Thais tricked, trapped and imported here to be slaves

Published: Sunday, Aug. 15 2010 1:01 a.m. MDT

"Pranee, who was our liaison at the office (a Global Horizons manager who spoke Thai) told us that we should not wander out like that. We said why not, we are here legally and have freedom. Pranee said, 'Well, the police are prejudiced, and when they see Asians, they like to cause problems,' " Bon said.

In Delta and Beaver, there were not enough beds available for all of them. Some plumbing was blocked up, and the company went weeks without fixing it. Workers were told not to complain or they would be sent home.

The Thais say they could have put up with all of that — until their pay was extremely delayed and then stopped altogether. (Circle Four and Delta Eggs paid Global Horizons, which was supposed to pay the workers.)

Chan says they would call Global Horizons and ask what was happening and would be scolded.

"Pranee scolded us and would even say, 'Why do you need money right now?' We explained that we needed to send money to our family. She said, 'Well, you should be sympathetic toward the company and look at the big picture. We are having some problems and need to get together.' "

Back in Thailand, some families were being pursued for nonpayment on loans.

Utah Legal Services and the Thai Community Development Center later hired a Thai graduate student to interview people in Thailand about what such times were like.

His report quotes an 82-year-old man saying that he had used his farm as collateral to help a son obtain loans for a recruitment fee. When money stopped coming from America, the 82-year-old soon found a loan shark "with his lawyer measuring our land. We owed (him) 460,000 baht ($14,000 U.S.)."

The wife of another worker found that a blank paper that her husband had signed was used as a contract for a visa renewal fee for 270,000 baht ($8,181 U.S.) plus 3 percent interest. She said a lawyer called "threatening to take away our land and home if we do not pay" that amount.

Eventually, Chan and Tin say they went seven weeks without pay from Global Horizons. Some of their fellow workers had sent all their money to Thailand amid the crisis and had no money left to buy food. They were becoming desperate.

One man, who had worked previously in Florida, knew of a legal aid service that had helped some migrant workers there. He called to ask if they could help the Thais in Utah. They passed along the name of Alex McBean at Utah Legal Services.

About that time in April 2007, 17 workers finally refused to show up for work — and told Circle Four they had not been paid for up to seven weeks. They also said that Global Horizons claimed it had not paid them because Circle Four had not made its payments to Global Horizons.

Don Butler, spokesman for Murphy Brown, the livestock arm of Smithfield Foods and the parent company of Circle Four, said his company asked Global what was happening. He said Global soon simply informed them that it would no longer be supplying any workers to Circle Four.

Butler said Circle Four did some investigating and found that Global Horizons had earlier lost its labor certifications for Utah and Colorado and could not employ people in those states legally.

Circle Four quickly filed a federal lawsuit against Global Horizons and its chief officer, Mordechai Orian. It claimed Circle Four had paid Global Horizons every week as stipulated in contracts but that Global had not in turn paid the Thais. Circle Four contended the Thais were not its employees but were Global Horizons' workers.

The lawsuit also said that Circle Four had found, to its surprise, that the U.S. Department of Labor in 2006 banned Global Horizons for three years from obtaining H-2A visas because of a variety of violations — even though Global had claimed it had all necessary immigration permission for workers.

Circle Four named 59 Thai laborers in the lawsuit as "interpleaders" so they could explain their situation and help resolve the dispute between the companies. McBean and Utah Legal Services represented most of them and began interviewing them about their stories — finding evidence of human trafficking.

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