Aloun Farms owners to admit to illegally importing farm laborers
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
The owners of Aloun Farms, one of the largest and best-known agricultural businesses in Hawai'i, are scheduled to plead guilty tomorrow in federal court to illegally importing farm laborers from Thailand and holding them in virtual servitude.
Alec Souphone Sou, president of Aloun Farms, and his brother Mike Mankone Sou, Aloun Farms vice president, are to enter their guilty pleas tomorrow afternoon.
They were indicted in August on charges of conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud and document servitude from April 2003 through February 2005.
In plea agreements reached with federal prosecutors, the Sou brothers will plead guilty to single counts of conspiracy to commit forced labor, according to court records.
Located in Kapolei, Aloun Farms is known for supplying a rich variety of Asian vegetables, melons and other produce to the state's largest wholesalers and grocers.
Aloun Farms is the second largest diversified fruit and vegetable farm in the state, with annual gross sales of about $8 million. The company farms approximately 3,000 acres, employs 150 to 200 workers and is active in the 'Ewa and Central O'ahu community, providing educational tours and supporting the Future Farmers of America program.
The brothers will admit to conspiring with Thai labor recruiters to bring 44 farm workers here, according to the plea agreements.
"Both brothers are going to help the government go after the people in Thailand who made false promises to the workers," said Eric Seitz, lawyer for Mike Sou .
"The brothers became caught up in a web of regulatory problems," Seitz continued.
"We deny categorically that we did anything to abuse or harm anyone," said Seitz.
Howard Luke, attorney for Alec Sou, declined comment.
The Sou brothers initially believed that the Thai laborers had each borrowed $8,000 to pay "recruitment fees" to Thai businessmen for the Hawai'i jobs but later learned the debts were $16,000 each, according to court records.
Additionally, the defendants knew that the workers believed they would be working here for at least 3 1/4 years, when in reality their visas were only valid for two months, the brothers have admitted. (The visas were later extended another three months.)
The Sous acknowledged "that most of the Thai workers would testify that Aloun representatives instructed the Thai workers not to socialize with outsiders, particularly Laotians, and not to leave the compound after they returned from work," the plea deals said.
Eleven of the workers were housed in "mobile storage containers" while working for Aloun, according to the government.
Some of the workers received no net earnings for months because of payroll deductions and were told they would be sent home to Thailand "if they were disobedient, failed to follow directions or if they tried to leave," the plea agreements said.
The Sous and others involved in the case knew that the workers had fears "of losing their family homes and land" in Thailand because of the debts they owed there, the court records said.
Two weeks ago, a federal court jury acquitted two officials of another farm business here on charges related to the importation of illegal farm workers from Mexico.