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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Farmers fear loss of migrant workers

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Separate federal and state investigations of a California-based company that supplies migrant workers has Island farmers such as Sandy Takishita feeling caught in the middle and worried whether she'll lose badly needed manpower to pick her crops this summer.

"We are alarmed," said Takishita, who owns Howard's Nurseries in Kula, Maui, with her husband, Howard. "We are very, very happy with our boys and we need them."

The farmers are not the subject of the investigations but worry that Santa Monica, Calif.-based Global Horizons Inc. could shut down operations and that the workers, here on temporary working visas, could be sent back to Thailand or the Philippines.

At least 10 Island farms mostly on the Neighbor Islands continue to operate with an estimated 120 seasonal workers provided by Global Horizons to pick and process crops ranging from coffee to macadamia nuts to flowers.

"It's upsetting to think that we might lose these boys," Takishita said. "Please don't just pull them, because we're the ones that would suffer. What are we going to do if these boys leave?"

The U.S. Department of Labor said last month that Global must pay $292,445 in fines and back wages for allegedly deceiving and underpaying Thai workers it sent to Hawai'i.

Global president Mordechai Orian did not return calls seeking comment last week and this week. Two Global representatives in the Islands referred calls to company offices in Santa Monica. Global's external legal counsel in Washington, D.C., referred calls to Global's in-house counsel, who did not return messages.

Since the U.S. Department of Labor's fines last month, the Los Angeles Times quoted Orian as saying he had done nothing wrong but "decided to settle (with the federal government) and move on."

"We've got the department really aggressively working against us instead of spending their time on the thousands of people working with no documents and really getting abused," Orian told the Times.

In addition to the U.S. Department of Labor allegations, Hawai'i's Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, the California state labor commissioner and Washington state Department of Labor and Industries are conducting their own investigations into Global's activities:

  • Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor said on Monday that they still have no record of Global paying the nearly $300,000 in back wages and fines. The department alleged last month that Global committed a series of violations, including not paying 88 temporary, nonimmigrant agricultural workers in Hawai'i on time or at the correct wage rate. The workers came into the U.S. on H-2A nonimmigrant visas, which allow foreigners to work temporarily on U.S. farms. The 88 workers were approved for agricultural work in Arizona, which has a lower wage rate than Hawai'i, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They ended up working in Hawai'i, even though Global was not authorized to employ the workers here, the U.S. Labor Department said.

  • Hawai'i's state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations last month filed motions in the District Court of the 1st Circuit's Honolulu Division seeking $177,232 from Global for unpaid unemployment insurance and penalties. The department also has cited Global for noncompliant housing conditions on eight farms.

    "There are issues whether they're in compliance with Hawai'i labor and employment laws," said Nelson Befitel, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. "We're investigating to ensure that the migrant workers receive the employment benefits they're entitled to under Hawai'i laws. It's government's obligation to ensure that we will help those who are unable to help themselves, which is the case here."

  • Officials with the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries revoked Global's farm labor contractor license on Dec. 30, which means that after two years of operations "they can no longer do business in this state as a farm labor contractor," said department spokesman Steve Pierce.

    "There were a variety of reasons," Pierce said. "They're not paying workers in a timely manner and (there are) problems in deductions for state income." Washington officials also assessed penalties of $1,200 against Global involving cooking conditions in workers' housing, Pierce said.

    Revoking Global's contractor license has Washington farmers concerned, Pierce said, "but at this point it's too early to see if there's a shortage of labor. No one wants crops to rot on the vines or trees."

  • California officials have resolved all but one of 38 cases against Global alleging "several things: nonpayment of wages, nonpayment of overtime and vacation pay upon termination and (employees) being issued checks that do not have adequate funds," said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California state labor commissioner. "Basically the paychecks have bounced and the employees have incurred bank fees because of those bounced checks."

    Out of 38 employees, 34 were compensated, three did not show up for their hearings or abandoned their cases, and a final case is still pending, Fryer said.

    California officials continue to review Global's farm labor contractor's license. "We're not sure at this point whether any action will be taken against them," Fryer said.

    Hawai'i's low unemployment rate, which has led the country for 24 straight months, has only contributed to the farm worker shortage in the Islands, which has become part of a broader national debate over immigration reform.

    Morton Bassan, the owner of Ka'u Gold Orange Co. said state investigators have looked over his Neighbor Island operation in connection with the Global investigation.

    He called Global "wonderful" and said he did not know "anything about the allegations."

    Kauai Coffee Co. Inc. has used anywhere from six Global workers in the off-season to as many as three dozen during the harvest season.

    Donn Soares, general manager of Kauai Coffee, said in an e-mail that Global has provided his company with workers since its 2004 harvest.

    With an island unemployment rate running below 3 percent, Soares wrote, "seasonal workers are, in fact, an important part of our agricultural staffing needs in order to have an optimum harvest/production."

    He called potential concerns over losing Global workers "highly speculative."

    But with Global the subject of multi-state investigations, farmers such as Takishita worry about having enough workers to bring their crops in during the busy summer season.

    Her operation includes 10 workers, including herself and her husband and two Thai employees provided by Global.

    The Takishitas pay Global $14.50 per hour for each of two workers, which includes Social Security contributions under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, medical benefits, workers' compensation, temporary disability insurance, housing, food and wages, Takishita said.

    "We've had a difficult time filling our labor needs," Takishita said. "They fulfill positions I cannot fill locally."

    Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.