Tuesday, July 27, 2010

 

Agriculture & Justice


By Henry Curtis

The Issue of the Indictment of Michael and Alec Sou has led to a flurry of emails among various people.

The Sou Farm

Aloun and Somphone Salamvathana emigrated from a refugee camp in Laos to Hawai`i and starting in 1977 leased 5-acres in Wai`anae. They raised four children including Michael and Alec. In the 1980s they shortened the family name to Sou. In 1995 they changed their business name to Aloun Farms – at that time they were leasing 880 acres in `Ewa and Kunia. Today the farm covers 3000 acres (5 square miles).

“Brother Mike serves as production manager. Father Aloun is president while mother Somphone serves as vice president. As general manager, Alec runs the finances. Big decisions are made by consensus. ‘But at the dinner table it doesn't matter,’ he admits. ‘I'm still the youngest. The decisions are made with a certain courtesy to seniority.’” (Green thumbs By Craig DeSilva. Hawaii Business, May 1, 1999)

Alec Sou is the Aloun Farms General Manager. He went to Wai`anae High School, Punahou, University of Puget Sound (BA: Asian Studies, 1990) and Bowling Green State University (MBA: Marketing, 1993). He is a board member of the Institute for Human Services; President of Hawaii Asian-Pacific Associates, Inc. (HAPA); and is on the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Board of Advisors.

The Indictment of Michael and Alec Sou

Department of Justice (August 28, 2009): “They arranged for the Thai workers to pay high recruitment fees, which were financed by debts secured with the workers’ family property and homes. Significant portions of these fees went to the defendants themselves, as alleged in the indictment. After arrival at Aloun Farms, the Sou defendants confiscated the Thai nationals’ passports and failed to honor the employment contracts. The Sou defendants maintained the Thai nationals’ labor by threatening to send them back to Thailand, where they would face serious economic harms created by the debts. The indictment also charges that the defendants engaged in a visa fraud conspiracy by making false representations in documents filed to obtain employment-based visas.”


The Plea

Associated Press (January 12, 2010): “Many of the laborers were told not to leave the farm after work, and 11 were housed in mobile storage containers while working for Aloun, the federal government claimed.

Kapolei-based Aloun Farms is known for supplying a variety of Asian vegetables, melons and other produce to the state's largest wholesalers and grocers. It employs as many as 200 workers and covers about 3,000 acres. Its annual gross sales are about $8 million.”

Honolulu Advertiser (January 13, 2010): “We’re talking about forced servitude. It’s really pretty serious case,” said Melissa Vincenty, a private attorney representing some of the Thai laborers. ...The workers had to borrow $16,000 apiece to their recruiters and believed that they would be working at Aloun Farms for some three years. In reality, their visas were only valid for two months and were later extended another three months. Some of the workers were housed in substandard quarters and weren’t paid for months after the Sous deducted expenses for such items as housing, food, transportation and taxes from their wages, according to the government. Many of the workers were married with children and had pledged their homes and property in Thailand as security to repay the recruitment fees, according to court records.

Some 24 of the Thai workers are still in the Islands and private attorneys Vincenty and Clare Hanusz represent the legal interests of 22 of them. ...”

Department of Justice Press Release (January 14, 2010): “Defendants Alec Sou and Mike Sou, co-owners of Aloun Farm, pleaded guilty on Jan.13, 2010, in federal district court in Honolulu, to conspiring to commit forced labor. ...During their respective plea hearings, the defendants acknowledged that they conspired with one another and with others to hold 44 Thai men in forced labor on a farm operated by the defendants, using a scheme of physical restraint and threats of serious harm to intimidate the workers and hold them in fear of attempting to leave the defendants’ service.”


The Sentence

Star Advertiser (July 20, 2010): “The sentencing hearing for the owners of Aloun Farms on forced-labor charges will continue in September because brothers Alec and Mike Sou refused to admit to committing acts to which they had pleaded guilty in January.”

Sara Lin (Civil Beat, July 20, 2010): “Sentencing hearings are usually pretty brief. The defendant has already been convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty to a crime. The judge hears comments from prosecutors, defense lawyers and in some cases victims and others before meting out a sentence. But a really strange thing happened ...[a] marathon five-hour sentencing hearing for the owners of Aloun Farms, brothers Mike and Alec Sou.”

The Plea for Leniency

Dr. Kioni Dudley (July 16, 2010): “On Monday, Alec and Mike Sou, owners of Aloun Farms, will be sentenced. This should be a matter of grave concern to all of us. Their incarceration would threaten the food security of the people of this state. ...The Sous play an essential role in the continued well-being of our state. We all suffer if they go to jail. Let some way be found to allow them to serve their sentence while serving the community, for the good of us all.”

Malia Zimmerman (July 19, 2010): “Lyle Wong PhD, administrator for the Plant Industry Division in the state Department of Agriculture, writes in a May 2010 letter that the Sous and Aloun Farms are “good people”, “honorable gentlemen” and “close, personal friends.” He says there are many challenges in the agriculture industry including labor shortages. He downplays their guilty plea and says their sentencing should allow them to get back into agriculture and put the incident behind them. ...”

Kent R. Lau, senior vice president of First Hawaiian Bank, admits in his letter that First Hawaiian Bank has an interest in the sentencing outcome because of “numerous credit facilities to Aloun over a 14-year relationship.” In a May 7, 2010, to Judge Mollway, he attests to the character of Mike and Alec Sou and their family saying they are extremely hard working, down to earth family of unquestioned character and integrity. He also called them genuine, honest, forthright, hardworking, generous, and moral people, noting their generosity to the Hawai`i Foodbank, the Hawai`i Future Farmers of America Scholarship Program and to First Hawaiian Bank’s Prime Time Health Fair.

Gabe Lee, executive vice president of American Savings Bank, wrote a letter in the Sou’s defense as their banker noting their loan to the Sous in the “medium six figure range.” He also said the Sous should be congratulated for their innovative work and committed efforts in a difficult industry.”

Star Advertiser (July 19, 2010): Dozens write to support Aloun leaders By Ken Kobayashi
“Two former governors and community leaders have submitted letters to a federal judge in support of two brothers facing sentencing today for employing Thai immigrants under forced labor conditions in 2004 and 2005 at the well-known Aloun Farms.

John Waihee and Ben Cayetano, former Land Board Chairman William Paty, Hawaii Foodbank President Richard Grimm and dozens of others sent letters to U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway on behalf of Alec and Mike Sou, who hope to avoid a prison term. ...

Waihee and Cayetano both said they did not know the facts of the criminal case, but Waihee said the Sou family helped the state by transforming the Ewa sugar fields into diversified farming. The family also has been active in serving the community, Waihee said. He urged Mollway to give Alec Sou probation.

Cayetano and his wife, Vicky, wrote that Alec Sou's rise as an immigrant from Thailand to establish the state's largest and most successful agribusiness is a "remarkable American success story." The Cayetanos said they have known Sou to be a person of "strong character and integrity."

Paty wrote that Mike Sou would not "condone mistreating of his workers in any way."

Grimm said Aloun Farms has been a "major partner" with the food bank in fighting hunger.”

Antya Miller (July 23, 2010): “To imprison productive farmers and community members, people who are actually trying to deal with the unbelievable challenges of being a farmer today, is ridiculous to me. I believe they should make amends for what they’ve been found guilty, but to imprison them?! The state legislature gives lip service to “keeping the country country” and supporting agriculture, but what do they do? ...Farmers must do all of the hard work of farming, working from dawn to dusk and then deal with all the modern challenges of being a business in the most costly city to have a business and in one of the most business-unfriendly states in America. ...We need to help farmers by addressing the issues that make their job so difficult. If we don’t do that, we will never be sustainable or have food security.”

Dr. Kioni Dudley (July 23, 2010) “If a foreign worker claims abuse while here, the statute of limitations on abuse is five years. If the case is not heard for the full five years, they can stay all of that time. If one can make a half million dollars worth of Thai purchasing power each year, there is plenty of incentive to claim abuse. ...

The whole thing seems to have started with a mistake in visas, which were for good for several months only, while the men claimed they thought they were coming for three years. The visas couldn't be changed. Some workers, then, of course, got angry and made accusations. Those accusations made their way to the Feds who got involved because of the international aspects of the case.

The Sous were indicted on August 28, 2009, the day we won our victory over DR Horton's Ho'opili development at the Land Use Commission. Following that indictment, the Federal prosecutor, Susan French, met with them to negotiate the plea bargain. But, as she admitted yesterday in court, she came with an indictment for five additional charges in hand (as a threat), and with non-negotiable language in the plea agreement. Those non-negotiable points are the things the Sous now say they didn't do. At the time of the plea meeting, their lawyers advised them to sign the plea agreement in order to avoid the second set of indictments, which they did.

At the sentencing session on Monday, the lawyers were hesitant to let them drop the plea agreement because they thought the Feds would take that opening to come at them again. If they held onto the plea agreement and could get the judge to change the details in it, they could keep the Feds at bay, and get the plea to list only the charges they admit to. That judge seemed willing to do that when she closed the session.

From the material presented in court, then, it seems that the Sous are not guilty of the outrageous ugly mistreatment of workers they brought from Thailand which has been in the news, and, indeed, the greatest part of the story of inhumane servitude has been concocted.”



The Plea for Agricultural Sustainability

Anthony Aalto: "Let's be clear here, this cause is not about the Alouns. It is about something much bigger. The land will be there long after they, and we, are dead and buried. The same is true of any development that we permit on the site. I have been unable to find any record of any land in the state that has been returned to agriculture once it was developed. If the farm is paved over it will be lost to agriculture forever. The issue here is sustainability: are we serious about it? If so, how do we achieve it if we allow the most productive farmland in the state to be paved over? Can we chew gum and walk at the same time? Can we support TOD for most of the route of the proposed transit corridor, but withhold that support for the last tranche that would turn the Aloun farm into a subdivision?"

Zuri Aki: "No developed land has ever been returned to agriculture simply because of the effort it will take to restore that land back to productivity - and mind you, it will never be nearly as productive as it originally was. This issue is about sustainability, this issue is about the capacity to endure - to live.

Human Trafficking is Serious

Honolulu Advertiser (January 13, 2010) “We’re talking about forced servitude. It’s really pretty serious case,” said Melissa Vincenty, a private attorney representing some of the Thai laborers. ...Some 24 of the Thai workers are still in the Islands and private attorneys Vincenty and Clare Hanusz represent the legal interests of 22 of them.

Human Trafficking (January 15, 2010) “Slave Labor on Hawaii's Second Largest Farm” by Amanda Kloer):

“If you ate produce from Hawaii, especially Asian vegetables and melons, between 2003 and 2005, chances are you were eating fruits and veggies grown by slaves.

That's because the owners of the second-largest fruit and vegetable farm in all of Hawaii, Aloun Farms, enslaved 44 Thai nationals during that time. The workers were all promised lucrative jobs in the U.S., but once they arrived in Hawaii, the promises were broken and the slavery began.

The Aloun Farms case is in many ways a typical human trafficking case. Company president Alec Souphone Sou and his brother Mike Mankone Sou made a deal with Thai labor recruiters to trick workers into taking jobs on the farm. The recruiters charged each of the workers $16,000 to bring them to the U.S. and find them work at Aloun Farms. Once in Hawaii, the workers were told they must pay off this debt before receiving a paycheck. Because of this falsely inflated debt, some workers never saw a penny from their labors at Aloun. They were told they could not leave the compound where they were housed or speak to people outside their group. Several workers were threatened with deportation if they were "disobedient."

Fortunately, Aloun Farms and their scheme were eventually busted and the brothers arrested. This week, they pled guilty to forced labor charges. They would have been sentenced to 15 years in prison each, but they agreed to help authorities find the Thai recruiters they worked with, the ones who deceived 44 Thai workers about the reality of a job on Aloun Farms. Their new sentence, taking the plea bargain into account, is still forthcoming.”


Henry Curtis (July 21, 2010): This reasoning is similar to saying 19th century southern land growing cotton should remain in cotton, and forget that slaves farmed it. Or saying it is a separate issue.”

Paul Achitoff (July 21, 2010): “If it were "clear that this cause is not about the Alouns," then there was no need for an op-ed begging to let the Alouns off with a slap on the wrist for enslaving workers, on the purported ground that the Alouns are agricultural geniuses, and our ability to feed ourselves is dependent on their uncanny skills. If it's not about the Alouns, there was no need to praise how community-minded they are, with their desperately-needed pumpkins. There was no need to argue that if the Alouns actually have to serve time for what they did, Monsanto will come in and plant GMO seed corn (while we're all starving). The Alouns are planting GMO seed corn (and from what I'm told, GMO corn for sale to the public as well) all by themselves. Excuse me, not all by themselves. Their laborers do it, while the Sous make the money. ...

If we're "serious about sustainability," we won't advocate for farming using toxic herbicides, pesticides, genetically engineered crops, or slave labor, poisoning the 'aina we're trying to protect, and poisoning the groundwater underneath it, and growing crops based on what makes the most money rather than what's good for the land or what's good for the people. And we won't prostitute ourselves by publicly begging for the release of people who have made their living that way for decades.”

Ann Freed (July 22, 2010): “This is such a difficult ethical problem, but I am with Henry on this. If the untenable choice is between people and the land, then I must choose the people.”

Choon James (July 23, 2010): “I believe we have certain basic values and premises that we share and should fight for: ...Preserve this rich and fertile farm area. Food sustainability for Hawaii is important considering we are in the middle of an ocean with nearest flight of five hours. (Hawaii has history of famine.) As mentioned, once ag lands are developed, they are gone forever, pretty much. ...Fair and just labor is an important issue. All human beings deserve to be treated fairly and justly. No one is above the law or should be exempted if alleged violations were willfully committed.”

Hannah Miyamoto (July 23, 2010): The Sous plead guilty. That means they are CONVICTED. Dudley can go on claiming they are the next Scottsboro Boys, or Capt. Dreyfuss, but they had legal counsel, plenty of money, an unbiased judge, a right to appeal, and a opportunity to plead not guilty and go to trial. Dudley may think the Sous are being "railroaded" (snark!) into prison; others see Dudley as resorting to slandering innocent victims of fraud and forced labor.

Dave B. (Civil Beat Comment): The defense lawyers read off a long long list of charitable foundations that the Sous supported with time and money: Meals on Wheels, the Hawaii Foodbank, etc. But what no one asked is whether they would have been able to be so generous without an indentured labor force. Alec Sou told the judge yesterday that the 44 workers had been paid $9.42 an hour (less taxes, meals), 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. If that's true, rough math shows that's about $862,120 a year ¬in wages. The essence of the guilty plea as it stands is that the brothers did not pay the workers. That's a lot of extra money on the books!


Industrial Agriculture & Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)


Paul Achitoff (July 22, 2010): “The paradigm that assumes we need to use toxic, petroleum-based chemicals, or other methods of industrial agriculture, to "feed the world," or have "food security," was a creation of post-World War II decisions made to benefit chemical companies and other agribusiness corporations, not farmers or consumers. The same is true about the advent of genetic engineering; it exists to benefit the corporations that created it and sell it. There is nothing "secure" about depending on petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides for your food. It's just the opposite: as the price of oil rises to compensate for the reduced supply, the price of these agricultural inputs also rises, and the price of food also rises. The way food is produced is perhaps the most environmentally significant issue on the planet today; it not only affects the quality of food, soil, and water, but also is responsible for a major portion of greenhouse gas production.”


Antya Miller (July 23, 2010): Do we want to go back to being a subsistence culture where we spend the majority of time on pure survival? Even people like the Amish mostly don’t grow organically. Chemicals are not all bad. It’s the overuse of chemicals that is bad. Growing organically in a tropical climate with no winter to kill off the bugs is extremely hard and labor intensive. Again, how many of you have a garden or farm and grow organically? It’s easy to be judgmental when you don’t walk in the shoes of another person.

Choon James (July 23, 2010): GMO is very questionable in various levels. It's not just on the health side but also the economic side. GMO will eventually allow big corporations like Monsanto to become the few food barons of this world. Monopoly is never good. Farming is a sustenance issue. I detest the thought that farmers, poor or rich, may end up HAVING to BUY seeds for each planting. Talking about ultimate control and greed! The poor will become more burdened.

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Comments:

Aloha Henry ~
Mahalo for your excellent research and coverage on this critical topic. I agree with Ann Freed (July 22, 2010):

"This is such a difficult ethical problem, but I am with Henry on this. If the untenable choice is between people and the land, then I must choose the people."

A*L*O*H*A
 


Aloha Henry ~
Mahalo for your excellent research and coverage. I agree with Ann Freed (July 22, 2010):

"This is such a difficult ethical problem, but I am with Henry on this. If the untenable choice is between people and the land, then I must choose the people."

A*L*O*H*A
 


Thanks, Henry, absolutely amazing peoples priorities. The integrity of many community leaders fell drastically with their absurd rationale of support of slavery by the Sou's. All that education resulting in greed and inhumane actions.Maximum sentence please for justice!
 


The people are the land and the land is the people, there is no either/or. There is only one. Life. World. Planet. If we hurt another part thinking we do not hurt ourselves, our gains our only ephemeral, they will vanish from our grip like an object held in a dream when we wake up to the reality of what we have done.
 


Mahalo Henry,

I am very troubled by this story and appreciate you bringing this to attention. It highlights a national local-food production crisis in which local-farms are put between a rock and a hard-place in order to compete with subsidized and industrialized foods. That the Sou brothers should choose this kind of contract-laborer policy and that many in the State and business community should defend their actions needs to be brought to the attention of national media. It is an embarrassment to Hawaii, as well as a stain upon Waianae where legitimate initiatives for community outreach and food growth is a model for local farms everywhere.
 


So are these righteous farmers and businessmen or are they engaging in agricultural slave labor? Are these Thai laborers horribly exploited victims of human trafficking or are they cagey buggers pulling off a scam that gets them five years in Hawaii while the legal wheels slowly turn? I've read everything I can find about this case, and I still don't have an answer. All the blather here about genetically modified organisms, agricultural chemicals, land-use policy, keeping the country country and the need for local agricultural self-sufficiency is irrelevant to the case at hand. There was a time when I could have concluded that a successful federal prosecution pretty well answers the question, but anybody who trusts the U.S. Justice Department these days probably also believes in Santa Claus. The question remains: WTF?
 

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