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

Orian explained how he charges growers a percentage of each worker's wages that ranges from 45 percent to 80 percent. He said growers pay that because, as one told him, "If I bring 200 Mexicans from Mexico, I know 100 will run away." But he said Thais, who are isolated by debt, distance and no community to support them, are more stable.

Mother Jones also said Orian claimed Thai workers lied about the debt they took out for recruiting fees. He scoffed at the idea that anyone could be stupid enough to sign blank papers. He also blamed corruption in Third World countries for problems and said sub-agents for the company may have been adding on to, and taking part of, recruitment fees.

McBean, the attorney for the Thais in Utah, said about a third of the group that obtained T visas remained in Utah and the other two-thirds scattered around the country in search of jobs. He says many ended up working in Thai restaurants.

Tin — who came to America hoping to save money to send his children to school — has managed like most of those interviewed to bring his family to Utah, and his children are in school.

"We want to stay here until our children get a better education. That is our ultimate goal," he says.

He adds that he and others had a hard time finding jobs in the recession but are willing to work hard wherever possible because of what America offers them. "This is a great country. It is a land of opportunity, and we want to make it here. We want to help, to be an asset, not a liability, to the community," he says.

Butler, meanwhile, said Circle Four has quit using labor recruiters after its experience with Global Horizons. He said it recruits locally for most lower-skilled jobs but does recruit nationally and internationally for animal scientists, nutritionists and other high-skilled positions.

The Thais in Utah may be just the tip of the iceberg of human trafficking. Between 2001 and 2008, the Justice Department convicted 515 people on human trafficking charges. Last year, it convicted another 47.

The federal government last year issued 313 "T visas" to foreigners considered victims of human trafficking in America and another 273 visas to members of their families. Also, 299 potential victim-witnesses were granted continued presence in the country while awaiting final visa decisions.

A report this summer by the State Department acknowledged to the world that America has a problem with human trafficking, "specifically forced labor, debt bondage and forced prostitution."

It describes some problems much the same way as do the Thai workers in Utah.

"In some human trafficking cases, workers are victims of fraudulent recruitment practices and have incurred large debts for promised employment in the United States, which makes them susceptible to debt bondage and involuntary servitude," the report said.

It adds, "Trafficking cases also involve passport confiscation, nonpayment or limited payment of wages, restriction of movement, isolation from the community, and physical and sexual abuse as a means of keeping victims in compelled service."

When told that most Utahns likely would not believe that modern slavery could exist in their state, the Thais say they understand that — but insist it happened here.

"We feel like we were slaves because our freedom was restricted. It was the worst employment situation that we've ever experienced. We never had our freedom restricted as we did working under Global Horizons, so yes, we were treated just like slaves," Chan says.

Rong — who looked like a strong, somewhat stoical man during most of his long interview — suddenly started crying when asked if he had been a slave.

"It was a big trauma in my life having to go through that. I was away from home over five years missing my family so much, and I couldn't go anywhere," he says.

"It was a horrible period in my life. But thanks to Utah Legal Services and others — who have been so kind to us — otherwise we would not be here today," he says. Blinking back tears, he confirms, "Yes, we were treated like slaves."

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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