Farmers describe working conditions at bosses' human trafficking sentencing

Farmers describe working conditions at bosses' human trafficking sentencing
Melissa Vincenty
Melissa Vincenty
Chai Chaowasaree
Chai Chaowasaree

By Ben Gutierrez bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Brothers Mike and Alec Sou own and operate Aloun Farms in Kapolei, one of the largest agricultural operations in the state. They each face five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty last January to charges of human trafficking. But there was so much testimony at a sentencing hearing in Federal Court that the proceedings have been continued until July 20.

Some workers brought here in 2004 said they were underpaid, and had to live in modified storage containers on the farm.

Prosecutors say the brothers, along with a recruiter, lured 44 farm workers from Thailand, promising the good wages, housing and food. Each of the workers paid recruiters $20,000 to come here. But the government says the Sous mistreated and underpaid the workers.

"We heard the witness testimony this morning that these men were brought over here specifically to work at Aloun Farms, and they have contracts," said Melissa Vincenty, an attorney for the victims. "They had issues from the beginning not being paid."

Inside the court, one of the victims, Somkhio Wongsa-Ard, said through an interpreter that they were given moldy bread to eat.

"Each piece that have the mold, we just take it off and eat the piece that look good," Wongsa-Ard said.

"They used to say if we ran away from working at the farm, police would arrest us," another victim, Rungtueang Sriwang, told the court through an interpreter.

But the Sou brothers had supporters, including several of their workers who wore Aloun Farms baseball caps as a sign of their loyalty to their bosses.

Local celebrity chef Chai Chaowasaree also showed up at court to support the Sous, and said that the case may be overblown.

"I think it's only one or two of them that make that kind of negative comment, and I think that in almost every business, when you do something, you let somebody go, you make someone mad, then they go blow it out of proportion and they make the thing look worse than it is," Chaowasaree said.

The victims' attorney remained unmoved.

"Well, this is still a forced labor case, let's not have any bones about that," said Melissa Vincenty. "These men had to continue to work, less than they were paid under contract, and were threatened to be sent back to Thailand with these huge mounting debts under their belts."

But the brothers' supporters don't believe it.

"I'm sad, all of us are, what happened over here," said worker Isidra Somera.