Labor contractor fined $300,000
Correction 12/21/06: The owner of a Los Angeles company that contracts with foreign workers to harvest U.S. crops backed out of a settlement with federal labor officials over alleged workforce violations because of the wording in the news release announcing the deal. Global Horizons Inc. claims the U.S. Labor Department release made it appear a judgment had been imposed against the company. It is now contesting the allegations, and a hearing before an administrative judge in San Francisco is scheduled next month. The company and Labor Department reached an agreement last May calling for Global Horizons to pay $156,995 in back wages and $135,450 in civil fines to settle claims involving 88 agricultural workers from Thailand. The Labor Department claims Global Horizons did not pay the workers the correct wage for their work in Hawai'i and made improper deductions from the employees' wages to pay for their housing and other needs, among other alleged violations. Global Horizons owner Mordechai Orian said he signed the settlement because Labor Department officials agreed there would be no admission of guilt, and his previous lawyers told him it was the cheapest and most expeditious way to end the probe. "I came to a business decision to pay and move on," he said. Orian said he actually paid the workers more than the rate called for in their contract or the rate required by the Labor Department for work in Hawai'i. And he said his company did not improperly take any money for their housing and personal needs. The Labor Department released a brief statement Monday that did not address Orian's claims. It said it was unfortunate that Global Horizons did not abide by the terms of the settlement. "As a result, the department has resumed litigation against the company," it said. The original Labor Department news release issued in May said Global Horizons had been "ordered" to pay back wages and fines. It also noted Orian owns the company, though it did not say he was responsible for any wrongdoing. Orian said including his name violated terms of the agreement. And he said using the term "ordered" rather than "agreed" was misleading and made it appear a judge had issued a decision. The company sent a letter to the Labor Department on Monday requesting that the press release be removed from the agency's Web site and that a retraction be issued.
By Nancy Cleeland
Los Angeles Times
By Nancy Cleeland
LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles-based labor contractor must pay nearly $300,000 in fines and back wages for allegedly deceiving and underpaying 88 Thai workers it sent to Hawai'i to harvest onions and pineapples, the Labor Department said yesterday.
Federal investigators also found that Global Horizons Inc. illegally deducted wages for housing and food and may not have paid for the workers' transportation.
The workers were brought into the United States on H-2A agricultural visas, which require employers to adhere to minimum rates of pay as well as to provide transportation, housing, meals and workers' compensation insurance.
The workers were approved to work in Arizona, where pay rates are lower than in Hawai'i. Some were illegally paid those lower rates in Hawai'i, according to a Labor Department spokesman.
Global Horizons president Mordechai Orian, who started the company in Israel 16 years ago and has plans to expand aggressively in California, said yesterday he had done nothing wrong, but had "decided to settle and move on." He blamed a farmer client in Hawai'i for the underpayments, which date back to 2003.
"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," he said.
As the visa sponsor, however, Orian is responsible for all the workers he imports.
Global Horizons has had problems with other regulators, including in California and Washington state. Last December, Washington officials revoked the company's contractor's license after years of complaints and fines.
California officials also have received dozens of complaints from Global Horizons workers, even though only a few hundred are now working in the state. Dean Fryer, spokesman for the state Department of Industrial Relations, said 27 wage claims are now pending against the company, alleging that workers near Fresno were not paid for overtime and that payroll checks bounced. A hearing on the charges is set for this week.
In light of the complaints and Washington's action, the state is also considering license revocation, Fryer said: "We are reviewing their California farm labor license to see if we will take any action against them."
At peak season, the company provides about 3,000 workers to U.S. growers and other companies in 28 states, with the majority concentrated in Oregon, Georgia, Florida and Hawai'i.
The company provides only a few hundred workers to citrus growers in California, the state that employs more agricultural workers than any other.
California farmers have long resisted using official visa programs to import workers because they've had a steady supply of undocumented workers. But as the border tightens, and existing agricultural workers leave for more desirable jobs, growers are complaining of shortages and rethinking the visa program.
"We came here because we thought we'd have more business in California," said Orian. "We still believe it will probably be the biggest market in the world."
The company imports nearly all its workers from Thailand and Vietnam, not Mexico and Central America as is more typical. Orian said "that has put a target on our company politically."
Global Horizons in March signed a national labor agreement with the United Farm Workers, which had been a dogged critic of the company. Under the pact, the company agreed to pay its workers 2 percent more than required by federal rules.
Union spokesman Marc Grossman said yesterday that he was unaware of the Labor Department action but expected the company to do better going forward.
"The UFW's goal is to use the union contract to remedy the violations cited by the government," Grossman said. "Our staff is out there monitoring the contract and making sure there's compliance. If not, workers can use the grievance procedure."
Grossman said the union, which is seeking to hire organizers who speak Thai and Vietnamese, had not received any grievances since the contract was signed two months ago.