A blow against slavery

Attention to human trafficking has focused in recent years on sexual exploitation, but one of every five victims is estimated to endure forced labor in factories or on farms. The Obama administration has recognized that reality and is to be commended for bringing to justice two farm owners who conspired with others to hold 44 men from Thailand in forced labor through debts, threats and restraint.

Brothers Alec and Mike Sou, co-owners of Aloun Farm on the Ewa plain, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to conspiring to commit forced labor. Each faces up to five years in prison for their roles in a labor trafficking operation.

The Justice Department should honor the Thai government’s request that it take care of the workers who were victims of the scheme. The workers, most of them married with children, secured loans to pay the recruitment fees, using their homes and subsistence farmlands as collateral.

Slavery became illegal in the United States 145 years ago, but President Barack Obama said in Tokyo two months ago that the industry has become a vast “transnational problem.” He urged countries to put a “stop to this scourge of modern-day slavery once and for all.”

The Sou brothers were accused of lying on visa applications to import the workers. California businessman Matee Chowsanitphon admitted having brokered the agreement in a trip to Thailand in 2003 and escorted the workers to Hawaii the following year for a price of $5,500 per worker. Once they arrived, the Sous took their passports, put them to work at paltry wages and restricted their contact with others.

“Holding other human beings in servitude against their will is a violation of individual rights that is intolerable in a free society,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

In the past fiscal year, his division brought the highest number of labor trafficking cases to court in a single year, according to a Justice news release.

“Labor traffickers prey on vulnerable victims and their dreams of a better life,” added U.S. Attorney Florence T. Nakakuni. “Those who conspire to hold workers in forced labor undermine this country’s promise of liberty and opportunity. We will continue to hold accountable those who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the freedom, rights and dignity of others.”

Farm workers are especially vulnerable, since they are denied by federal labor law the right to organize and form unions or receive overtime pay, while minimum wage and workplace safety protections are hardly enforced.

The Sou brothers are not likely to be the only employers in Hawaii to have exploited foreign workers. The Justice Department should use the Sous’ case as a starting point for an extensive crackdown on employers that enslave their workers in Hawaii.

source: http://www.starbulletin.com/editorials/20100117_A_blow_against_slavery.html?page=1&c=y

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