HONOLULU (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Wednesday in the trial of two Hawaii farmers charged with conspiring to coerce at least 30 impoverished Thai nationals into forced labor under the guise of a guest worker program.
Alec and Mike Sou, who run Aloun Farms on the island of Oahu and specialize in growing produce, face a federal trial in Honolulu that is expected to last until Labor Day.
Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway is presiding over the case, after previously rejecting a plea deal that broke down in negotiations between the Sous and prosecutors.
The Sou brothers each face a dozen charges, including forced labor conspiracy, forced labor, visa fraud conspiracy and obstructing or impeding an official proceeding.
A 2010 indictment accuses the Sou brothers of holding about 30 Thai nationals “in a condition of forced labor” between September 2004 and early 2005.
The Sou family immigrated to Hawaii decades ago from Laos, from a refugee camp on the border with Thailand.
Thomas Otake, an attorney for Mike Sou, said his client is eager to “tell his side of the story” at trial.
“These false allegations have been devastating to his life and family,” Otake said.
The laborers, who were impoverished rural farmers from Thailand, were recruited under the U.S. Department of Labor’s seasonal and agricultural worker program, known as the H-2A program, the indictment states.
But, in violation of the terms of the federal program, the Sou brothers forced the workers to pay their airfare to Hawaii and to pay for substandard housing, the indictment states.
Due to all the deductions, and the high interest loans they took for the recruitment fees in a scheme that allegedly involved the Sou brothers, workers were left with “minimal pay,” the indictment states.
To add to the workers plight, several of them were kept in mobile storage containers without air conditioning or indoor plumbing, according to the indictment.
Melissa Vincenty, an attorney representing the Thai workers, said the Sou brothers brought over 44 Thai workers, but that authorities did not find the treatment of 10 of those workers to be criminal.
A third defendant, labor recruiter William Khoo of Thailand, is accused of helping to recruit the workers, but he remains at large, Vincenty said.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Peter Bohan