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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

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.

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.

He ended up staying in Thailand for a full year before he could return. He says lenders pressured him and his family to pay the loans he had taken out to get to America. But Global Horizons talked to the lenders "and told them we were going back to the United States to work. Then they were not so harsh with us" — but he says his interest rates were raised because of the delays.

Even while working in America, workers found ongoing pay delays. So sometimes they would send all the money they had back to Thailand to cover bills, meaning they could not buy food themselves.

In Hawaii on a coffee plantation, Chan says, "We ran out of money. And we had to go and trap some wild animals and birds and to pick wild vegetables and whatever else was available around the plantation to survive."

They say housing usually was overcrowded. It was common for seven or eight people to be in a cheap motel room or trailer that could sleep only four in beds — the rest slept on floors. They had to handwash laundry in sinks. They sometimes had no kitchens and cooked on hot plates or in crock pots.

The company told them not to allow outsiders to visit. They were constantly warned that anyone who violated those rules would be fired and sent home. Tin says that supervisors who stood up for workers "didn't last long and would be fired."

Rong remembers that in Washington state, he and a group of Thais were taken to a dollar store to shop. "Police saw all of us and thought we were terrorists or something." The Thais didn't have ID and didn't understand instructions. "They pulled guns on us. They hauled us to the police station. It was terrifying."

Rong says the company used reports of such incidents to discourage workers from going anywhere and constantly told them that Americans were prejudiced against Asians and it would be dangerous to leave.

In 2005, the Circle Four farm in Milford signed a contract with Global Horizons to provide labor. The farm raises and markets 1.2 million hogs a year and is a subsidiary of Smithfield Food, the largest producer of pork in the nation.

Delta Eggs chicken farms in Juab County also had signed with Global to provide workers for it, and some Global Horizons employees also went there.

Global advertised itself as a work force services firm that, for a fee, recruited legal employees, paid them, housed them, insured them, supervised them and handled immigration and other particulars that none but the biggest farm companies could easily handle on their own.

Workers interviewed say they had no problems with Circle Four or Delta Eggs and say they were treated well by them and liked the work, pay and hours. But they say actions by Global Horizons became unbearable in Utah.

Some Thai workers lived in trailers in Beaver and were driven by bus to the pig farms in Milford. "We had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get on the bus because there were many sites where workers were dropped off. The bus was so old that it caught on fire once and we had to run out," Chan says.

He added that Thais were not accustomed to cold winter weather and the bus had no heater. "We had to pile blankets on us to keep warm." He says heat in their trailers did not work well either. They also lacked working air conditioning in the summer.

Chan added, "They did not allow us to go outside and get to know anyone. And they did not allow outsiders to come into the premises. It made it hard for us to live in that confinement." They didn't have a lot of time to socialize anyway, working 10 hours a day, six days a week — not counting long commute times.

While no guards kept them in their trailers, workers say that Global Horizons supervisors constantly warned that if they broke the rules, they would be sent home — and their families would be ruined.

In Delta, Bon says, some Thais took a walk to find a pay phone to call their families. He says suspicious police stopped them. Police asked to see their passports, which they did not have. They thought the Thais were illegal workers, and followed them home.

He said a supervisor talked to the police to resolve misunderstandings. But the company then chided the workers for leaving their room.

"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.

Meanwhile, the Thai workers were caught in limbo. They were still in Utah — without passports and visas. Global Horizons was no longer taking them to work at Circle Four. They had no money.

Although Circle Four was satisfied with their work, Butler said it could not hire the Thais directly because they appeared to lack current visas and clearances to work.

Chan says Circle Four helped him and fellow Thai workers anyway. "They slaughtered some pigs for us, so we had something to eat," he says.

Butler added that because the Thai workers had no local support, "Circle Four provided them with food, clothing and financial assistance." Thai workers say McBean and Utah Legal Services also arranged help.

Butler declined to answer whether Circle Four had known about slavery-like conditions that workers had lived under while working at its farm. In a written comment, the company said that it considered the Thais as employees of Global Horizons and not its own employees.

Eventually, in February 2008, the Thais, Global Horizons and Circle Four reached a settlement — but the court sealed it. While all parties say they cannot discuss it, the Thai workers interviewed say they did not lose their farms in Thailand. So, presumably, they must have been paid enough to save them.

Because of the stories Thai workers in Utah told, McBean and Utah Legal Services helped them apply for "T visas" — given by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to victims of human trafficking, which by definition ranges from sex work to involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery.

They won those visas, meaning that at least one arm of the federal government believes they were victims of modern slavery. The visas give them up to four years of temporary residency in America and allow them to seek permanent residency after three years.

In applying for the visas, the Thais were required to report to law enforcement what happened to them and must be willing to cooperate with any investigation or prosecution of the perpetrators.

"We have an open investigation related to Global Horizons," Xochitl Hinojosa, spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Division — which includes the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit — told the Deseret News. "We have no further comment at this time."

Mother Jones magazine — an investigative publication — reported earlier this year that the probe into Global Horizons could become the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history because the company brought in more than 1,000 Thais in 2004 and 2005 before being banned from recruiting guest workers in 2006.

Global Horizons and Orian did not return numerous calls from the Deseret News seeking comment.

But Orian has talked to other news media in recent years as questions arose about Global Horizons' operations in several states.

For example, in 2005 when Washington state officials were investigating claims that Global was not paying Thai workers as promised and mistreating them, Orian told the Seattle Times that the charges had no merit. He said the probe hurt farmers and his company by delaying needed work.

Orian told the High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., also in 2005 in a story about migrant workers, that "there's nothing better than the Thai people. They're humble, they're respectful and they go back home."

In 2007, when some Thais sued Global Horizons in Washington state, Orian told Seattle Weekly that licensing requirements he was accused of breaking were so murky that state and federal officials disagreed on what he had needed to do.

This year, he gave Mother Jones magazine a more extended interview. The magazine described him as a 44-year-old Israeli whose office, which sits in a tower on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, is "urbane and upbeat" and decorated with plenty of "blond wood."

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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