If you ate produce from Hawaii, especially Asian vegetables and melons, between 2003 and 2005, chances are you were eating fruits and veggies grown by slaves. That’s because the owners of the second-largest fruit and vegetable farm in all of Hawaii, Aloun Farms, enslaved 44 Thai nationals during that time. The workers were all promised lucrative jobs in the U.S., but once they arrived in Hawaii, the promises were broken and the slavery began.
The Aloun Farms case is in many ways a typical human trafficking case. Company president Alec Souphone Sou and his brother Mike Mankone Sou made a deal with Thai labor recruiters to trick workers into taking jobs on the farm. The recruiters charged each of the workers $16,000 to bring them to the U.S. and find them work at Aloun Farms. Once in Hawaii, the workers were told they must pay off this debt before receiving a paycheck. Because of this falsely inflated debt, some workers never saw a penny from their labors at Aloun. They were told they could not leave the compound where they were housed or speak to people outside their group. Several workers were threatened with deportation if they were “disobedient.”
Fortunately, Aloun Farms and their scheme were eventually busted and the brothers arrested. This week, they pled guilty to forced labor charges. They would have been sentenced to 15 years in prison each, but they agreed to help authorities find the Thai recruiters they worked with, the ones who deceived 44 Thai workers about the reality of a job on Aloun Farms. Their new sentence, taking the plea bargain into account, is still forthcoming.
While we may like to think that farms full of slaves growing and harvesting produce for supermarkets is something that only happens in developing countries, we are not immune here in the U.S. Nor is Hawaii’s isolation a factor — similar cases have occurred in North Carolina, Florida, and California. So how can you avoid buying and eating food grown by slaves?
Knowing and understanding where your food comes from is a good first step. Some more processed products, like coffee and sugar, come in Fair Trade certified varieties, but fresh produce is often more difficult to find fairly traded. Buying from local, small farms and places like co-ops and farmers markets can help reduce your chances of buying slave-grown food. And reading labels about where your food comes from is a great habit to get into. Because if no one bought food grown by slaves, then places like Aloun Farms would quickly go out of business.
Photo credit: karimian