Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Hawaii’s entanglements with human trafficking

by Larry Geller

Expect a scramble as Hawaii farms try to disassociate themselves from the human trafficking cases now in federal court. On Thursday a judge threw out the plea agreement under which the two Aloun Farms brothers were to be sentenced.  On Friday, the same judge ordered Mordechai Orian to remain in custody at least until October 8. Farm owners who did business with Orian’s recruiting company both here and on the Mainland may be sweating. According to one of the indictments, more than 400 trafficked Thai workers may have circulated through a dozen Hawaii farms.

Aloun tentThe Aloun Farms tent at the Saturday KCC Farmers Market no longer has an “Aloun Farms” banner. So shoppers are unaware that they are purchasing produce from a company facing charges of human trafficking of farm workers.

Since the sign was taken down shoppers flock to pick up melons and other produce, which are often cheaper than at other tents. Other vendor’s melons most often come from Aloun Farms anyway, they are that large a producer.

Each morning, part way through the market, a large truck backs into the shopping area to unload a fresh supply of melons at the Aloun tent. It too is unmarked. The melons keep selling. Buyers don’t know. The melons are cheap and very good tasting.

That affordable produce may be affordable only because of low labor costs. And the accusation is that the farm has benefited from employing trafficked Thai workers.

Is agriculture in Hawaii dependent on imported labor? Can farm owners not be aware of substandard working conditions and housing which their guest workers have been subjected to, even though they contract with a third party for that labor? How many farms are affected?

The two high-profile human trafficking cases brought by the feds have made Hawaii a kind of “ground zero” for involuntary servitude. There are other actions pending that could resolve the responsibility of local farm owners and investors one way or the other. None of the publicity will be good for the state or its agricultural exports.

Investors including Pierre Omidyar have been put on the defensive. Omidyar is quoted in a Star-Advertiser article

In 2007, Omidyar invested $10 million in Maui Land and Pineapple Co.

Omidyar said yesterday the alleged human trafficking occurred before he became a shareholder and he had no knowledge of the incident until "a year or two" after buying into the company.

"It was terrible circumstances that occurred certainly, but it occurred and then it stopped before we even became shareholders," Omidyar said. "We didn't even know about it until a year or two later. With the quality of the management that's there now and the issues they're focusing on, I'm happy to be a shareholder today." 

Omidyar said the MLP episode demonstrates how hard it is to eradicate human trafficking, and "how easy it is to become involved in a business or to buy a product, buy a pineapple, or whatever, and sort of unknowingly kind of taint yourself with these terrible practices."  [Star-Advertiser, Omidyar to invest more in Hawaii, 9/10/2010]

A longer statement by Omidyar can be found here.

Investors, and owners of farms which have employed indentured labor directly or through third-party contractors have already reaped the profits that low-cost labor permits, even if they then terminate their involvement.

Kauai Coffee files suit

Not all farm owners can claim they did not know about working conditions on their own farms. Another case now in federal court makes this abundantly clear. Kauai Coffee, facing EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) charges filed by 17 workers, has brought suit holding that responsibility for defending the workers’ charges properly falls on Global Horizons, Mordechai Orian’s former company, which recruited the workers. The suit argues, in part, that Kauai Coffee’s contract with Global Horizons requires the recruiter to indemnify the company against the actions brought by the workers.

Andy Parx, (got windmills?) wrote extensively about Kauai Coffee and its suit in his September 7 article:

Seventeen EEOC complaints? And Kaua`i Coffee is apparently not only refusing to cooperate with the feds but is trying to stave off indictment but countersuing to get the jump on them.

Andy continues with more details on the lawsuit in another article and suggests, because Kauai Coffee provided housing and transportation for the workers, that

It’s hard to see how if, as with the cases against Orian and Global Horizons, workers were held against their will that Kaua`i Coffee was fully unaware of what was going on and therefore were not accessory to the crime regardless of any indemnification.

Maui Maui Pineapple Co.—slave labor in a lovely setting

Mother Jones chronicled the ordeal of Thai farm worker Nikhom Intajak (not his real name) in their May/June 2010 article Bound for America.

THREE MONTHS after Intajak arrived in America, in October 2004, Global Horizons sent him to Hawaii to work for the Maui Pineapple Co. Here, the pay was better than in Yakima—$9.50 an hour—but the conditions were worse. One Global Horizons agent, Intajak and other workers told me, was in the habit of carrying a knife, a gun, or a baseball bat, and of threatening workers with "deportation" if they didn't behave or meet their quotas. Just four days in, Intajak says, he watched the man beat a coworker.

The Maui Pineapple Co.'s land is nestled among gorgeous foothills, shrouded in mist and covered with volcanic soil the color of dark coffee. The now-defunct company was part of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., whose majority owner is Steve Case, cofounder of AOL; another primary shareholder is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a generous benefactor of anti-slavery organizations. The terrain is so lovely that Martha Stewart Living featured the Maui Pineapple Co. and a smattering of pineapple recipes in its January 2007 issue.

State lax in regulating human trafficking

Pineapple recipes are fine, but stories about Hawaii’s dependence on slave labor will sour the pudding. The state has not been very proactive in protecting exploitation of farm labor, as evidenced by the current federal actions. Now the publicity will begin. It already has in the form of a report by the Washington DC Polaris Project released on August 18 rating states on regulating human trafficking. Polaris put Hawaii in its “Dirty Dozen” list of states:

Standing out in the ratings are the “Dirty Dozen,” which include states that have not addressed the crime of human trafficking at all (Hawaii, Massachusetts, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming). The remaining states (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, South Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia) criminalize only sex trafficking or labor trafficking but not both, only include human trafficking as a mere sentencing enhancement, or have laws that are too weak or so narrowly drafted that investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking cannot proceed.

The Hawaii State Senate removed labor trafficking from SB2045, a bill introduced in this year’s legislative session, leaving only sex trafficking. The bill had problems, and was deservedly vetoed by Governor Lingle. In any case, its defeat meant that there was no change in Hawaii’s laws affecting involuntary servitude.

Testimony given during the progress of the bill included assertions that the new law wasn’t needed, or that it conflicted with existing law, which may contradict the Polaris Project conclusion that Hawaii has no laws. In view of the federal indictments, it’s abundantly clear, though, that perhaps new legislation is not only badly needed but long overdue.

SB2045 as introduced would have provided an alternative for prosecution, had it been better crafted and passed into law. As it is, once again the federal government will have to set the state straight on civil rights violations.

The cases now in federal court will keep Hawaii in an unwanted spotlight for some time. At least our legislators might revisit the need for better regulation that might remove the state from future “Dirty Dozen” lists.

We want sustainable, organic, and slave-labor-free local agriculture

Those who advocate for sustainable agriculture in the state might look into how that might be possible while paying fair wages to farm workers. Consumers are increasingly wary of buying products that may be tainted by slave labor, even if the price is low. Accusations (so far unfounded) have been raised against Trader Joe’s, a growing chain not yet in Hawaii. The same website cautions against purchasing shrimp or other seafood originating in Thailand or Malaysia because of the extensive incidents of adult and child labor involved in their fishing industries. Many seafood products available in Hawaii originate in those countries. Consciousness is rising nationwide on what to buy and what to shun.

What a disaster it would be if Hawaii’s farm exports are tainted with accusations of slave labor. We should work on the problem now, before it has a chance to fester. The Internet allows for no secrets.


Well, for that matter, we shouldn't buy anything from WalMart (I rarely do) because the reason its prices are so low is that the company dictates what price it will pay and the only way its vendors can meet that price is to outsource the work to countries where there are no labor laws, or at least where labor is dirt-cheap for a variety of other reasons. We can vote with our wallets but if they're empty . . . . .

BTW, is that photo above meant to represent the banner-less Aloun tent at the KCC Farmer's Market? I don't recall seeing that sign in the foreground any time recently, and I'm a regular. The "properties" folder on the photo says "Alountent_thumb3.jpg" but . . . . . . Maybe I'm missing something. Please clarify.

Yes, that's the Aloun tent. They used to have a banner at the back. To the right is Koko Crater Coffee (plug: that's where we buy our espresso). The sign in the front is new.


Interesting 'cuz the HFBF farmer's market application states "Please have a sign identifying your farm/company prominently displayed. Signs for products and prices should be legible and clearly displayed. All signs referencing farming practices and methods should support the Hawaii Farm Bureau's policies and shall be approved by the market manager." (see page 8)

I wonder if the market manager may also approve no sign at all?

In fairness, Aloun itself was not charged in the HT case (although I suppose Aloun and the Sous are virtually the same) but, still, one would want to know who sold something for accountability purposes (good or bad).

Ned, I faxed the Hawaii Farm Bureau to ask why Aloun Farms is allowed to operate a tent without an identifying sign. Will post the reply, if any.

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