Earlier this month in Honolulu, Hawaii, the U.S. Justice Department indicted six executives of the company Global Horizons Manpower for engaging in a conspiracy to commit forced labor and document servitude. The contractors are accused of abusing the H2-A guest worker program in 2004 and 2005. The H2-A program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of U.S. workers to petition the Department of Labor and USCIS for temporary nonimmigrant workers to perform agricultural-related labor. The indictment alleges that the company conspired to obtain the forced labor of approximately 400 Thai nationals by enticing them to come to the United States with false promises of decent work and high wages, but then holding them in virtual slavery on farms in Hawaii and Washington State. The defendants made the Thai workers pay high recruiting fees before coming to the United States. Many of the workers were forced to take on overwhelming debts, secured by their family property and homes, in order to pay the recruitment fees; the indictment further alleges that significant portions of these fees went directly to the defendants themselves. Once in the U.S., the defendants took away the workers’ passports and they were forced to live in substandard housing and to work for little pay. They were further told that if they complained or fled, they would be fired, arrested, or deported. Most of the workers were unaware of their rights, and felt forced to accept the abuse because if they left, they would be unable to pay off their debts, and so to return home to Thailand would mean their families would lose their land and homes.
This case, the largest human-trafficking case ever brought by the federal government, highlights the continuing need for immigration reform. Clearly there is a need for programs to help low-wage workers know their rights and report abuses. Although current Labor Secretary Hilda Solis introduced new H2-A regulations in January 2009 designed to promote the rights of guest workers, there remains a need for stronger legislation to protect workers coming to the United States.
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