New guest-worker contracts in doubt

Dozens of workers brought from Thailand last year to harvest apples and cherries in the Yakima Valley were supposed to stay in a state-approved hotel, their meals catered by a local Mexican restaurant.

It was months before anyone in authority discovered something was wrong.

The farmworkers, who spoke no English, were living in a motley assortment of cheap motels and a mobile home. Some were sleeping two to a double bed, cooking on the floor and washing their clothes in garbage cans — conditions that state inspectors called "seriously deficient."

The housing flap was among several problems that marked the first attempt to import government-sanctioned "guest workers" for work in Washington orchards.

According to correspondence between Global Horizons, the California-based labor contractor that brought the Thais here, and the state and federal government, as well as internal government memos:

• Global operated without a farm-labor contractors' license for about nine months because federal labor and state employment officials didn't realize the company needed one.

• Some of the Thais told government officials that during their first two months in the U.S., money that was deducted from their paychecks to be sent to their families never arrived.

• Some said they weren't receiving pay stubs and therefore didn't know if they were being paid as their contact required.

• Some said they had signed one contract in Thai with Global before leaving home and another contract in English once they arrived in the U.S., but the language barrier prevented them from knowing what they signed the second time.

Global President Mordechai Orian has called the complaints against his company groundless.

But he is in a battle to continue operating in this state.

Citing concerns over housing, the U.S. Department of Labor last month rejected the company's applications to bring 550 more workers for thinning and pruning jobs to two Yakima Valley farms this year.

The company's state farm-labor contractor license is also in limbo.

The state Department of Labor and Industries rejected Global's request to renew the document, citing underreported and underpaid industrial-insurance premiums for two quarters last year. It cited the company for more than 30 separate violations of the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act and fined it $3,200.

Global is appealing both the federal and state actions.

"Growers are hurting for help. And this delay is hurting them and it's hurting us." said Orian. He said his company is providing a crucial service for growers worried about a labor shortage.

"We've made a huge investment in the state of Washington. We're not going to roll over and play dead."

Farmworker unions and advocacy groups accuse state and federal agencies of failing to properly safeguard the rights of the foreign workers brought into the state.

"You have to wonder whether, given the problems and questions with Global Horizons over housing and other concerns, this process allows for the kind of scrutiny it takes to protect both local and foreign workers," said Michele Besso, senior attorney with the farmworker unit of the Northwest Justice Project.

Agricultural employers or farm-labor contractors like Global can bring foreign workers into the U.S. on nonimmigrant visas called H-2As — if they can show there are no local workers to fill the jobs.

Orian said his privately held company supplies labor to farms in about 25 states across the country — ranging from nut and fruit orchards in Hawaii and Montana to vegetable farms in Maryland and Indiana.

In Washington last year, the Thais thinned trees and harvested fruit at Green Acre Farms in Harrah and Valley Fruit in Wapato.

State officials admit there were early glitches last year and their first attempt to monitor the H-2A program for fruit workers hit some snags. "We anticipate doing things differently this year, ensuring all requirements are met," said Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the Washington Employment Security Department, which makes initial recommendations on H-2As.

The most serious concerns appear to center around how Global housed and paid the Thais.

The men lived in a motel, apartment building and doublewide for about four months before Employment Security officials discovered the problem.

They contacted managers at the Quality Inn in Yakima, where the workers were to have been staying. The managers confirmed that Global had canceled the contract.

Orian, Global's president, said the hotel was fully booked by the time the workers arrived. "We moved them to a motel. It's the same public housing," he said.

Orian said Global is buying property in the Yakima Valley to house its workers.

He denies that the Thais weren't paid as promised. Money diverted for the worker's families was placed in a bank account in Thailand and distributed, he said.

"We'd hear from the Thai government if there was a problem," he said. "We're very open in what we do."

The troubles dogging Global here are not its first.

The U.S. Labor Department is conducting a multistate investigation connected to wage and hour violations by the company, although it declined to give further details. State employment and labor officials are also looking into the wage allegations raised by the Thais last year.

Orian's troubles also extend overseas to Israel, where for a time during the mid-1990s he operated a labor-contracting company that brought workers from parts of Asia to work in construction and agriculture.

In a statement, the Israeli Ministry of Labor cited Global's "illegal employment of migrant workers" as a key reason it eventually canceled the company's labor-contractor license.

Orian said accusations that led to the ministry's action were lies. "There are people who have a lot of jealousies," he said.