Utah slavery part of big human trafficking case
The Justice Department calls it the largest human-trafficking case in U.S. history. And a key to breaking it came in Utah, where workers who had been tricked into modern slavery managed to tell officials about their plight in 2007 and help trigger investigations.
"I was treated just like a slave" in Utah and at other farms around the nation, said Chang, a pseudonym he uses because he still fears possible retribution against his family in Thailand.
Toh, another Thai living in Utah, added, "It was almost unbearable. They took a lot from us not our lives, but our livelihoods and money and our dignity."
The two were interviewed through an interpreter Tuesday by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced indictments against six leaders of Los Angeles-based Global Horizons, which it says recruited about 400 Thais to work on U.S. farms but held them in virtual slavery.
The company's chief, Mordechai Orian, surrendered to federal authorities in Hawaii, and his bail was set at $1 million. He faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted at a trial tentatively set for November.
The Department of Homeland Security gave "T visas" to several dozen Thais who had worked for Global Horizons in Utah after they managed to report their situation. That recognizes them as victims of human trafficking and allows them to stay and seek permanent residency as long as they cooperate with the investigations.
"Their responsibility is to cooperate with law enforcement, and that's what they are doing," said Alex McBean, an attorney with Utah Legal Services who helped them win the T visas and escape dire conditions.
Their story began in 2004 and 2005 in Thailand, when Global Horizons recruiters came to their villages and offered them jobs in the United States that they said would pay in a month what it takes a year to earn in Thailand.
"It was very exciting," Chang said. But it came with a big catch.
Chang and Toh were told they each would have to pay an upfront "recruitment fee" of $24,000. They figured that, even after paying it, they could still make a big profit during the three years of promised work.
To pay the fee, they had to mortgage their families' rice farms, plus the property of other relatives. "Private lenders," essentially loan sharks, provided part of the financing at annual interest rates of up to 800 percent.
So Chang and Toh knew that if they lost their jobs in America, their families would forfeit their farms, homes and the ability to feed themselves. Virtually all other Thais were in the same situation.
Toh said just before he and others were to board an airplane to America, Global Horizons asked workers to quickly sign a stack of papers. He said they had no time to read them closely, and some were later found by others to have been converted by Global Horizons into contracts for high payment for such services as renewing work visas.
Once they arrived in the U.S., workers said Global Horizons took their passports for "safekeeping." They would find that would limit their freedom to move around the country or return home if they desired.
Workers interviewed said they worked around the U.S. Global Horizons told farms that, for a fee, it would recruit, pay and take care of visas for foreign workers.
Chang said they often lived in squalid conditions, with many workers sleeping on floors in housing that often lacked heat or air conditioning. They said Global Horizons was often late with pay, so workers sent home what little money they had to keep up with loan payments and prevent the loss of their homes. That often left them unable to buy much to eat here.
"Anyone who complained was told that they would be sent home," Chang said, leaving them no choice but to put up with bad conditions or lose everything.
Eventually, Chang, Toh and several dozen Thais were sent to work at Circle Four hog farms in Milford and Delta Eggs chicken farms in Delta. Thais interviewed said they had no problems with those companies and were well-treated by them. But they said Global Horizons' treatment became unbearable.
Thais working at Circle Four went unpaid for seven weeks in 2007 and were becoming desperate. One who had become acquainted with a legal-aid group that helped migrant workers in Florida managed to call and ask if it could help. It gave him McBean's name at Utah Legal Services, who began to look into their plight.
Thais at Circle Four eventually refused to go to work for lack of pay. Circle Four called Global Horizons to ask what was happening with money it had been paying for salaries and was told Global Horizons would no longer supply workers.
Circle Four soon filed a lawsuit against Global Horizons and named 59 Thais as "interpleaders" to explain their plight. The Thais were eventually included in a financial settlement. While details are sealed, Thais said they were all able to keep their homes so they apparently were paid enough to cover their loans.
McBean said it became clear the Thais were victims of human trafficking, so he helped them apply for T visas and contact law enforcement.
For a time, the Thais were in limbo. They had no jobs from Global Horizons, and their visas allowed them to work only for that company. So they had no means of support.
Chang and Toh said Circle Four slaughtered some hogs to feed them. They said McBean also put them in contact with charities and others who helped.
McBean said once the Thais in Utah obtained T visas, about two-thirds of them left for other states and most now work in Thai restaurants. Toh was able to bring his wife and daughter to America and has found a job in Utah in manufacturing.
Chang, however, said his wife left him because of the financial problems. However, his 13-year-old daughter has come to live with him here, and he is building a new life working in a lumber yard.
Chang said the charges against Global Horizons give him hope that others won't be enslaved as he was.
McBean, his lawyer, isn't so sure.
"It might slow it down, but there's too much money to be made, so I don't think it will stop anytime soon," he said. "There are too many desperate people who want to come here and will pay a lot of money and believe a lot of lies."
The United States has a human trafficking problem involving the importation of workers for forced labor and prostitution, a recent U.S. State Department report said.
"In some human trafficking cases, workers are victims of fraudulent recruitment practices and have incurred large debts for promised employment in the United States, which makes them susceptible to debt bondage and involuntary servitude," the report said in part.