LOS ANGELES, California - The federal government is calling a human-trafficking lawsuit against a California-based farm labor contractor and eight farms the largest case of alleged forced labor of farm workers in the United States.
The lawsuit, made public Tuesday in Los Angeles by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accused Global Horizons Manpower Inc., based in Beverly Hills, California, and eight farms in Hawaii and Washington state of luring more than 200 men from Thailand to work at farms where they were subjected to abuse.
The government alleges that between 2003 and 2007, Global Horizons promised hundreds of workers lucrative jobs in the United States, and then charged the workers exorbitant recruitment fees that they were expected to work to pay off. In some cases, according the lawsuit, the workers owed tens of thousands of dollars.
Telephone numbers listed for Global Horizons offices in Hawaii and California were not in service Wednesday. The company did not respond to a CNN e-mail request for comment.
The men were brought to the United States under a federal H2-A visa program, which places foreign workers on U.S. farms. But once the men arrived, the suit says, their passports were confiscated and they were not paid for their work. It also alleges that many of the workers were barred from leaving the farms and were forced to live in cramped, dirty conditions.
In many cases, the Thai workers were threatened with deportation if they complained about the conditions, the lawsuit said.
The government named six farms in Hawaii and two farms in Washington in the lawsuit, alleging the companies not only ignored abuses but participated in the "obvious mistreatment, intimidation, harassment, and unequal pay of the Thai workers."
"Upon arriving to the U.S., their passports were confiscated and they were threatened with deportation if they complained," Michael Farrell, an EEOC attorney said during a news conference in Honolulu announcing details of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the workers endured screaming, threats and physical assaults by their supervisors.
"In some cases bodyguards were stationed around the farms to ensure that none of the workers escaped," Farrell told CNN affiliate KHON.
Federal criminal charges were brought last year against Global Horizons' owner, Mordechai Orian, and others for the alleged trafficking of more than 400 Thai workers.
Tuesday marked the first time the federal government implicated farms in the case. None of the farms face criminal charges.
The farms in Hawaii include: Captain Cook Coffee Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Co., Kelena Farms, MacFarms of Hawaii and Maui Pineapple Farms. The farms in Washington state were identified as Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards.
Telephone messages left by CNN seeking comment were not immediately returned by Del Monte, Kauai Coffee Co. and Mac Farms of Hawaii. There was no answer at Maui Pineapple Farms, and the owner of Captain Cook Coffee Co. declined to comment until he had read the lawsuit.
A telephone message left by CNN for the attorney representing the Washington farms was not immediately returned.
The federal lawsuit accuses Global Horizons and the farms of violating the Civil Rights Act. It is seeking back pay and monetary damages of between $50,000 and $300,000 for each worker. The EEOC said that the case could potentially involve hundreds of victims and witnesses.
The case was brought to the attention of the government by the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles after a number of farm workers reached out to the nonprofit agency for help.