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EEOC reaches $2.4M settlement in Thai farm worker mistreatment suit

EEOC reaches $2.4M settlement in Thai farm worker mistreatment suit

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reached a $2.4 million settlement on part of litigation filed three years ago in which a farm labor contractor and six farms were charged with national origin discrimination and retaliation in connection with their alleged mistreatment of Thai farm workers.

The settlement, announced Monday by the EEOC, involves four of the farms named as defendants and includes monetary relief, options for jobs and benefits, housing, other reimbursements of expenses, and sweeping injunctive relief remedies benefiting about 500 Thai workers in the EEOC's case, the agency said.

Defendants named in the settlement were Captain Cook, Hawaii-based Mac Farms of Hawaii L.L.C.; Kalaheo, Hawaii-based Kauai Coffee Co. Inc.; Kunai, Hawaii-based Kelena Farms Inc.; and Burlingame, California-based Captain Cook Coffee Co. Ltd.

The EEOC initially filed its lawsuit against Los Angeles, California-based farm labor contractor Global Horizons Inc. and the farms in U.S. District Court in Honolulu in April 2011, in which it charged the defendants with trafficking Thai workers to farms in Hawaii and Washington State, where they were allegedly subjected to mistreatment and discrimination.

The EEOC said in its statement that the Thai farm workers were contracted through Global Horizons to work at the farms sometime between 2003 and 2007 under the H2-A temporary visa program, which required the farm workers to be provided food and housing along with pay for work performed.

The EEOC said exorbitant recruitment fees placed the Thai workers in a situation of “debt bondage” early on, and workers were then subjected to varying degrees of the denial or delay of pay; monitoring movements and confiscating passports; production quotas that non-Thai workers did not have to adhere to; denial of adequate food and water, and unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions.

The EEOC said those who complained were retaliated against, with many forced to quit or flee as a result.

Coral Gables, Florida-based Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., originally named one of the defendants, agreed to pay $1.2 million in November 2013 to settle the suit against its Hawaii subsidiary.

In March of this year, a federal judge found Global Horizons liable for harassment, discrimination and retaliation for its treatment of the workers, and set Nov. 18 for a trial to determine the amount of money it will pay for the abuses Thai workers suffered, as well as the measures Global will need to implement to prevent future abuses.

Global Horizons and Kahului, Hawaii-based Maui Pineapple Co., whose operations were reportedly shut down in 2009, remain as the only defendants in the case, according to the EEOC.

Under terms of the settlement, Mac Farms will pay $1.6 million, Kauai Coffee will pay $425,000, Kelena Farms will pay $275,000 and Captain Cook Coffee will pay $100,000 directly to the workers, for a total of $2.4 million.

Among other terms of the settlement, Kelena Farms offered full-time jobs with benefits, profit-sharing and 401(k) plan options, while Captain Cook offered seasonal jobs, benefits, transportation and housing for workers during the three-year terms of their decrees. The offers extended by Kelena and Captain Cook are valued at close to another $4.9 million, the EEOC said.

“Today's announcement serves as a reminder to the agricultural industry to remain ever-vigilant in hiring and monitoring farm labor contractors,” said Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles district, in a statement.

“We all have a responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable workers are not denied basic human dignity and life-sustaining water and food. Farms and farm labor contractors — and the supervisors that represent them — must ensure workers' civil rights remain intact, no matter their race or the country they come from.”

Attorneys for the farms either had no comment or could not be reached.