HONOLULU – The trial of two brothers accused of forcing 44 Thai workers to work on their Hawaii vegetable farm opened Friday with competing claims over who's to blame: Prosecutors said poor laborers were manipulated and deceived, while the defense argued the federal government made victims of both the farm's owners and workers.
Aloun Farms owners Alec and Mike Sou are standing trial on federal charges they economically trapped the laborers from Thailand into working on the farm for little pay while living in metal containers without plumbing.
They each face up to 20 years in prison without parole after they backed out of a plea deal last September that came with a five-year maximum sentence.
Attorney Kevonne Small for the U.S. government told the jury the Sou brothers held the workers in their service through lies, threats and intimidation.
"This case is about false promises, broken dreams and greed," Small said. "The workers were entrapped into working on the farm for meager wages."
Thomas Bienert, who represents Alec Sou, argued the government ruined the business arrangement when it failed to renew the workers' guest worker visas.
Without valid visas to work in the United States, Bienert said the workers couldn't earn enough money to repay the debts they incurred to travel to Hawaii, but that wasn't the Sous' fault.
"Everyone's unhappy, but the Sous did nothing wrong," Bienert said. "It was as much a blow to the Sous when they learned the government wouldn't allow them to stay here as it was to the workers."
Federal prosecutors claim the Sou brothers gamed the United States' guest-worker visa system to keep the rural north Thailand laborers on the 3,000-acre Oahu farm, which grows a variety of foods including lettuce, apples, bananas, parsley, watermelon and pumpkin year-round in Hawaii's mild climate.
The workers were led to believe they would receive three years of work for six days a week at $9.42 an hour, after they paid between $16,000 and $20,000 in recruiting fees to get the jobs, prosecutors said. But they learned after arriving in Hawaii they would be paid much less, and their visas lasted only five months.
If the workers complained, they were threatened with deportation, which could cause them to lose their ancestral family lands and homes, prosecutors said.
"As soon as the workers arrived, they knew they had been deceived," Small said. "They kept working because they were afraid."
But the Sous' lawyers say they upheld their end of the bargain.
The Sous provided airfare, meals, housing and promised wages to the workers, and there was nothing they could do when immigration officials declined to renew the laborers' visas, Bienert said.
The Sous never gave the workers any assurances of sustained work beyond the expiration of their visas, and their attorneys said they shouldn't be held responsible for actions by the recruiting company, Udon NT.
"These workers were paid, they were paid well and most importantly, they were paid what they were told they would be paid," said Thomas Otake, who represents Mike Sou. "If the Thai workers were led to believe something by an individual Thai recruiting company ... that's not the fault of Mike and Alec Sou."
In addition, the workers could have quit and left the farm at any time during their employment, which Bienert said invalidates claims of forced labor.
The trial was expected to last several weeks, and the government has submitted a list of at least 52 witnesses it plans to have testify, including at least 18 of the Thai workers.
The defense listed 64 witnesses it may call, including at least seven of the Thai workers.