Lawsuits reveal new labor trafficking scam on Thai and Indonesian nationals

February 26, 2007 MEDIA RELEASE

(Raleigh, NC) – Twenty-two Thai and three Indonesian workers recently filed two separate lawsuits against North Carolina employers and Asian labor brokers. The workers say that their employers and labor brokers deliberately lied to them and the U.S. government.

The workers came to the U.S. legally under a federal program, which provides agricultural employers with temporary labor. However, the Thai workers allege that they were actually victims of labor trafficking. The Indonesian workers got little or no work opportunities when they reached North Carolina.

Both workers groups are represented by Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit, which provides free civil legal assistance to seasonal and migratory farmworkers across North Carolina.

“The two cases reflect an emerging pattern.” said Mary Lee Hall, senior managing attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). “Labor brokers in Asia, with ties to NC employers, falsely promise three years of work. Since the contracts are approved by the U.S. government, workers believe the promises to be legitimate and pay the huge recruitment fees demanded by the labor brokers.

“However, the actual work may last only a few months, and workers earn a mere fraction of what they paid to come to the United States. Also the visa is limited to one employer. It’s a situation ripe for exploitation and a subversion of the program, which allows for these visas in case of a true labor shortage.”

Asanok, et al v. Million Express Manpower, Inc. et al: Case No. 5:07-cv-00048-BO (filed 02/12/07) (E.D.N.C.)
The Thai workers allege that North Carolina corporation Million Express Manpower, Inc. and a Thai company also called Million Express Manpower violated the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act by committing visa fraud. They also claim Million Express Manpower threatened them against leaving its employment, confiscated their passports, and forced them to work without pay in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, violating the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Million Express Manpower in Thailand promised the workers visas of three years’ duration for agricultural jobs paying U.S. wages. In return, the workers had to advance their transportation costs and pay “recruitment fees”, totaling about $11,250 each. The workers did the math and decided they could recoup their investment in a year or so with hard work and use the remaining time to earn a nest egg for their families.

“They made a reasonable decision to invest in what seemed a profitable job opportunity,” said Hall. “They didn’t know that it was all a scam. They and the U.S. government were both fooled.”

Instead of three years, the farm work was sporadic and ended altogether a few months after their arrival. The workers had to give Million Express Manpower their passports and return tickets. Million Express Manpower soon moved them from the motel housing inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor into crowded outbuildings behind its president’s home and rationed their food.

Million Express used guns and other physical and non-physical means of restraint to prevent their escape. In New Orleans, Million Express didn’t pay them for the post-Katrina clean-up he ordered them to do, and housed the workers in a condemned hotel. They were reduced to catching pigeons to eat. Eventually they were able to escape.

Sianipar, et al v. GTN Employment Agency, et al: Case No. 07-CVS-3490. (filed 2-22-07)
The three Indonesian workers brought their lawsuit in North Carolina Superior Court in Mecklenburg County against GTN Employment Services, Inc., two Indonesian labor recruiters, and two North Carolina growers.

The three workers each paid over $6000 in recruitment fees and transportation costs to the labor brokers. It appeared to be a good investment in return for three years of work in America. One man, Indra Budiawan, mortgaged his family’s ancestral land – deemed sacred – in order to pay the recruiters.

When they arrived in North Carolina, GTN confiscated their passports, visas and return plane tickets. GTN never offered a single hour of farm work to two of the workers, and offered minimal work to the other. Eventually, all three workers were housed at a GTN warehouse in Charlotte where they had to share a bare mattress on the floor. When the workers asked to leave, GTN demanded more money from them in order to retrieve their passports and return plane tickets. The workers escaped on foot, leaving all their belongings behind.

Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to eligible, low-income people in order to provide equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. LANC serves clients in all 100 counties in North Carolina through 24, geographically located offices in North Carolina. LANC’s clients typically have an annual income of 125% or less of the federally established poverty levels.

CONTACTS:

  • Mary Lee Hall (Senior Managing Attorney, Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC),919-856-2180

    Lori Elmer (Staff Attorney, Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC), 919-856-2180

    Katharine Woomer-Deters (Staff Attorney, Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC), 919-856-2180

    Dock Kornegay (Director, Public Relations & Development, LANC, Raleigh, NC), 919-856-2564


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Mission Statement

Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity.

 

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