A federal grand jury in Honolulu has indicted six labor contractors from a Los Angeles manpower company on charges that they imposed forced labor on some 400 Thai farm workers, in what justice officials called the biggest human-trafficking case ever brought by federal authorities.
The charges, prepared by Justice Department civil rights lawyers, were brought against the president, three executives and two Thai labor contractors from Global Horizons Manpower, which recruits foreign farm workers for the federal agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A.
The indictment, which was unsealed Thursday in Hawaii, accuses Global Horizons executives of working to "obtain cheap, compliant labor" from guest workers who had been forced into debt in Thailand to pay fees to local recruiters. The company, according to the indictment, sought to "to compel the workers' labor and service through threats to have them arrested, deported or sent back to Thailand, knowing the workers could not pay off their debts if sent home."
The number of workers who are said to be victims is the largest ever in a human trafficking case, said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman.
A woman who answered at the telephone listed for Global Horizons Manpower in Los Angeles said the number no longer was used by the company. Numbers for the company in Tampa, Fla., were disconnected.
Many events described in the indictment took place in 2004 and 2005, when Global Horizons first brought hundreds of Thai workers to farms in Hawaii and Washington State. But Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, said the charges were the culmination of years of pressure by that group. She said questions about Global Horizons' management of the Thai laborers arose when one of them fled a work crew in Hawaii in 2003, and found his way to Los Angeles and the center.
Since then, Ms. Martorell said, the center has identified 263 Thai guest workers who were brought to the United States on legal temporary visas by Global Horizons, but later fled what they described as oppressive conditions.
The indictment says recruiters in Thailand charged the workers - who earned as little as $1,000 a year farming in their home country - as much as $21,000 to obtain visas for the United States. Global Horizons did not disclose these fees to United States labor officials, the charges state.
Workers who were dispatched to a pineapple farm in Maui and orchards in Washington were paid far less than they had been promised, and were often housed in shoddy conditions, according to the charges; Global Horizons impounded their passports.
In recent weeks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued findings against Global Horizons for civil rights violations, Ms. Martorell said. About 100 Thai workers have been granted residency visas for victims of human trafficking.
Among those facing charges are Mordechai Yosef Orian, president of Global Horizons, and Pranee Tubchumpol, director of international relations. Mr. Orian surrendered in Honolulu on Friday and pleaded not guilty, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Tubchumpol was detained in Los Angeles, said a spokesman for the Honolulu prosecutor.