SALT LAKE CITY — Chan, a short man but strong from a lifetime of labor in rice fields, tells how he blundered into a trap when he left Thailand to work abroad. In fact, the U.S. government officially calls him, in diplomatic parlance, a victim of "human trafficking."
Chan is more blunt. "We were slaves," he says about himself and scores of fellow Thai workers.
He says their employer controlled their movement. If they failed to work long and hard, the employer could ensure that their families back home would lose everything. Housing lacked enough heat in freezing winters and air conditioning in scorching summers. They repeatedly went hungry and even trapped wild birds to subsist.
That did not occur in Sudan, Burma or some other infamous Third World slavery abyss.
It happened in Utah — from 2005 to 2007 for a group of workers from Thailand who eventually managed to get help, freedom and a new life in America.
With their experiences as a starting base, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating what could become the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.
At the center of scrutiny is Global Horizons, a Los Angeles-based company that recruited people in Thailand for farm work in the United States. It eventually placed some of them with two Utah companies: Circle Four pig farms in Milford and at Delta Eggs chicken farms in Delta.
Chan, Bon, Tin and Rong — all pseudonyms because they and their lawyer fear extended families in Thailand could be targeted because they are talking to the press — look like Americans now.
The skinny men wear polo shirts or T-shirts, blue jeans and sneakers. Their haircuts are American-style. They grin as they talk about America and its opportunities, sounding like politicians on the Fourth of July. One of their T-shirts even says "American Tradition" and has an eagle on it. Tin just came from a job interview in the land of opportunity.
They share their stories while seated around a polished conference table at Utah Legal Services, a nonprofit that gives legal aid to the poor. They say that agency and attorney Alex McBean rescued them and won them "T visas" from the Department of Homeland Security as victims of human trafficking. Those visas allow them to stay in America and seek permanent residency.
The four tell how they were conned into what sounded like a good deal to work in America, only to land in modern slavery in Utah. They became victims of human trafficking even though each had worked abroad previously without problems on farms and in factories in such countries as Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Israel.
The workers say they arrived legally in America at different times in 2004 and 2005 with H-2A visas for agricultural work. Such visas are good only as long as workers remain with the employer that obtained them, which in this case was Global Horizons. If workers tried to leave Global, they would lose their legal status.
Workers were sent to farms nationwide and at first were not in Utah (where their slavery story later would worsen and then end).
Chan added, "They did not allow us to go outside and get to know anyone. And they did not allow outsiders to come into the premises. It made it hard for us to live in that confinement." They didn't have a lot of time to socialize anyway, working 10 hours a day, six days a week — not counting long commute times.
While no guards kept them in their trailers, workers say that Global Horizons supervisors constantly warned that if they broke the rules, they would be sent home — and their families would be ruined.
The Thais in Utah may be just the tip of the iceberg of human trafficking. Between 2001 and 2008, the Justice Department convicted 515 people on human trafficking charges. Last year, it convicted another 47.
The federal government last year issued 313 "T visas" to foreigners considered victims of human trafficking in America and another 273 visas to members of their families. Also, 299 potential victim-witnesses were granted continued presence in the country while awaiting final visa decisions.
A report this summer by the State Department acknowledged to the world that America has a problem with human trafficking, "specifically forced labor, debt bondage and forced prostitution."
It describes some problems much the same way as do the Thai workers in Utah.
"In some human trafficking cases, workers are victims of fraudulent recruitment practices and have incurred large debts for promised employment in the United States, which makes them susceptible to debt bondage and involuntary servitude," the report said.
It adds, "Trafficking cases also involve passport confiscation, nonpayment or limited payment of wages, restriction of movement, isolation from the community, and physical and sexual abuse as a means of keeping victims in compelled service."
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