Hawaii Farms Settle with EEOC over H-2A Farmworker Abuses

By Roy Maurer Jun 3, 2014

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced the settlement of its national origin and race discrimination case with four Hawaii farms charged with labor abuses of Thai farmworkers brought to the U.S. under the H-2A temporary visa program.

Mac Farms of Hawaii, Kauai Coffee Co., Kelena Farms and Captain Cook Coffee Co. agreed to pay $2.4 million in direct monetary relief to about 530 Thai workers. The settlement also includes options for jobs, benefits, housing and other expense reimbursements, as well as injunctive remedies.

In March 2014, U.S. District Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi in Hawaii ruled that Beverly Hills, Calif.-based farm labor contractor Global Horizons was liable for the pattern or practice of harassing and discriminating and retaliating against hundreds of Thai farmworkers in the U.S. based on their national origin and race, in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC named six Hawaii farms as defendants, asserting that they were joint employers with Global Horizons and liable due to the acts committed by the contractor. A November trial has been set to determine Global Horizons’ financial damages. The EEOC has said it will seek the maximum compensation for each victim under federal law—about $300,000 per person, or $159 million for all 530 claimants. Del Monte Fresh Produce settled in November 2013 for $1.2 million. The case against Maui Pineapple Co. is ongoing.

The EEOC asserted that between 2003 and 2007, Global Horizons recruited Thai nationals through the H-2A agricultural guest worker visa program to work on farms, where they harvested a variety of produce, from pineapples to coffee beans. High recruitment fees created an insurmountable debt for the Thai workers, according to the agency. The EEOC charged that when the workers reached the U.S., Global Horizons confiscated their passports and threatened to deport anyone who complained.

According to the charges, the workers were subjected to varying degrees of the denial or delay of pay; the monitoring of movements and the confiscation of passports; production quotas that non-Thai workers need not adhere to; denial of adequate food and water; and unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions.

As part of the settlement’s four consent decrees, 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 victims. In addition, Kelena Farms offered full-time jobs with benefits, profit sharing and 401(k) plan options while Captain Cook Coffee offered seasonal jobs, benefits, transportation and housing for workers during the term of their decrees. The offers extended by Kelena and Captain Cook Coffee, valued at nearly $4.9 million, add to the direct monetary settlements over the duration of the consent decrees, according to the EEOC. The agency will monitor the terms of the job offers.

Injunctive relief includes requirements that farms and farm labor contractors (FLCs):

  • Disseminate policies and procedures prohibiting discrimination to their local workforce and to H-2A guest workers in a language that workers understand.
  • Conduct audits to ensure FLC compliance with the consent decree.
  • Designate a corporate compliance officer for oversight of FLCs and Title VII compliance.
  • Train managers, supervisors and employees on their obligations under Title VII.
  • Report to the EEOC and maintain records.

Agricultural employers need to be vigilant in hiring and monitoring farm labor contractors, said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District, in a news release. “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.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him at @SHRMRoy

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