Hawaii Farms Settle with Thai Workers for $2.4 Million Dollars in Discrimination Suit, Training Ordered

Monday, September 8, 2014

Question:  Would national origin discrimination training have prevented this case?  See our trainings at http://www.hrclassroom.com. Court makes finding against Co-Employer and Joint Employer. 

U.S. District Judge Leslie E. Kobayashi in Hawaii has approved settlements between the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and four Hawaii farms totaling $2.4 million for about 500 Thai farmworker victims of national origin discrimination and retaliation.  The settlement encompasses monetary relief, options for jobs and benefits, housing, other reimbursements of expenses, and sweeping injunctive relief remedies. The four farms are Mac Farms of Hawaii, LLC [nka MF Nut Co., LLC]; Kauai Coffee Company, Inc., [nka McBryde Resources, Inc.]; Kelena Farms, Inc. and Captain Cook Coffee Company, Ltd. 

The EEOC initially filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii in April 2011 against farm labor contractor Global Horizons and six farms in Hawaii on behalf of the Thai farmworkers.  (EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc. d/b/a Global Horizons Manpower, Inc., Captain Cook Coffee Co., Ltd., Del Monte Fresh Produce (Hawaii), Inc., Kauai Coffee Company, Inc., Kelena Farms, Inc., Mac Farms of Hawaii, LLC, Maui Pineapple Co., et al, Case No. CV-11-00257-LEK- RLP).  One of the farms, Del Monte Fresh Produce, already settled for $1.2 million in November 2013.

In March 2014, Judge Kobayashi ruled that Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Global Horizons was liable for the pattern or practice of harassing, discriminating against and retaliating against hundreds of Thai farmworkers in the U.S. based on their national origin and race, in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.  The EEOC named the farms in Hawaii as defendants, asserting that they were joint employers with the labor contractor, and liable due to the acts committed by Global Horizons.  Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple Company remain as the only defendants left in the case, although default judgments were entered by the court. 

The EEOC alleged that Thai farmworkers were contracted through Global Horizons to work at the farms sometime between 2003 and 2007 under the H2-A temporary visa program, which required the farmworkers to be provided food and housing aside from pay for work performed.  Exorbitant recruitment fees placed the Thai workers into a situation of debt bondage early on.  Workers were then subjected to varying degrees of  denial or delay of pay; had their movements monitored and passports confiscated; had production quotas imposed that did not apply to non-Thai workers; were denied adequate food and water; and forced into unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions.  Those who complained of the pattern or practice of discrimination and harassment were retaliated against, with many forced to quit or flee as a result, the EEOC said.

All this alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach pre-litigation settlements through its conciliation process. 

As part of the four consent decrees finalized today, Mac Farms will pay $1.6 million, Kauai Coffee will pay $425,000, Kelena Farms will pay $275,000 and Captain Cook Coffee will pay $100,000 directly to the victims.  As such, the total direct monetary relief recovered is $2.4 million.  In addition, Kelena Farms offered full-time jobs with generous benefits, profit-sharing & 401(k) plan options, while Captain Cook Coffee offered seasonal jobs, benefits, transportation and housing for workers during the term of their decrees.  The offers extended by Kelena and Captain Cook, valued at nearly $4.9 million, add to the direct monetary settlements over the duration of the consent decrees.  The EEOC will monitor the terms of the job offers.

Sweeping injunctive relief approved by the judge in all of these consent decrees will ensure that farms and farm labor contractors (FLCs) disseminate policies and procedures prohibiting discrimination to their local workforce and to H2-A guest workers in a language they understand; conduct audits to ensure FLC compliance with the consent decree; designate a corporate compliance officer for oversight of FLCs and Title VII compliance; train managers, supervisors and employees on their obligations under Title VII; and report to the EEOC and maintain records.

Eliminating discriminatory policies affecting vulnerable workers who may be unaware of their rights under equal employment laws or reluctant or unable to exercise them is one of six national priorities identified by the EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP).  These policies can include disparate pay, job segregation, harassment and human trafficking.

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