Hawaii Key witness takes stand in human trafficking trial Brothers face up to 20 years in jail under forced labor charge

By Mark Niesse

Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- A man who arranged for 44 poor laborers from Thailand to be transported to work on a Hawaii farm told a jury Wednesday that recruiters collected steep fees from the laborers and then spent it on airfare and incentive payments to the farm's owners.

Federal prosecutors were attempting to use Matee Chowsanitphon's testimony to prove that Alec and Mike Sou, the owners of Aloun Farms, broke federal guest worker program rules requiring that employers pay for workers' transportation, and that the Sous underpaid the laborers once they arrived in Hawaii.

The Sou brothers could face up to 20 years in prison without parole if convicted in the forced labor trial.

Chowsanitphon, a 57-year-old U.S. citizen who was born in Bangkok, said recruiters shuffled money paid by the workers to land the farm jobs -- between $16,000 and $20,000 each -- to make the business deal with the Sous.

Chowsanitphon said he worked with a Thai labor recruiter named William Khoo to split the fees paid by the workers.

Then, Khoo would pay for the laborers' plane flights to Honolulu, and Chowsanitphon offered the Sou brothers $2,500 per worker to hire the laborers. Khoo was indicted along with the Sous in 2009 but he remains at large.

"Khoo explained he would pay for the transportation but he would collect it from the workers from the recruitment fee," Chowsanitphon said during the trial, speaking in Thai through an interpreter.

Chowsanitphon was testifying as a key witness for prosecutors after he reached a deal in 2009 to plead guilty to visa fraud and serve five years' probation.

He said the incentive payments to the Sou brothers would help offset the cost of the workers' employment contract, which set their pay at $9.60 an hour. When the workers arrived in Hawaii in September 2004, he said the Sous told them they'd be paid less.

"When I explained about the wage to the workers, they were all unhappy," Chowsanitphon said. "... (Khoo) told the workers ... he could not pay what they had agreed initially."

Prosecutors were barred by U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway from claiming that recruitment fees were illegal at the time when the Sous brought the Thai workers to Aloun Farms. The law was changed in 2009 to prohibit recruiting fees.

But prosecutors questioned Chowsanitphon at length about the recruitment fees in an effort to establish that the fees were part of the alleged plan to economically entrap the workers on the farm with little recourse.

The workers were told that if they complained about wages or living conditions, they'd be deported to Thailand with no way to repay their debts, prosecutors wrote in a pretrial brief. The result would be they'd lose their family land and homes.

Under questioning by Thomas Bienert, an attorney for Alec Sou, Chowsanitphon said the workers were free to leave the farm, they weren't threatened and they had their passports, according to pool reports provided by Civil Beat.

Bienert said workers were paid less than they expected because they weren't able to work when it rained and taxes were deducted.

The trial started last week and was expected to last about a month.

Published: Fri, Aug 5, 2011