Government Fines Immigrant Labor Company

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The owner of a Los Angeles firm that a supplies legal immigrant farm labor is being fined by federal authorities for allegedly failing to pay 88 temporary workers from Thailand. The owner of the company, Mordechai Orian, was recently profiled by NPR's Carrie Kahn, who has a follow-up report on his problems with the government.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

The federal government has ordered a Los Angeles labor contractor to pay more than a quarter of a million dollars in back wages and penalties. That follows an investigation into the employment of nearly 100 guest workers from Thailand.

Prompted by a report on NPR, Labor Department officials say they finalized a settlement with Mordechai Orian and his company. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, this is the latest in a string of sanctions against this major importer of foreign guest workers into the U.S.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Mordechai Orian brought the 88 workers into the U.S. legally through the current, although seldom used, H-2A guest worker program. The Thai workers spent a season picking pineapples, onions, and melons on farms in Hawaii three years ago.

But according to U.S. officials, Orian's firm, Global Horizons, illegally deducted taxes from their checks, underpaid the men, and even tried to coerce them into accepting fewer benefits than what they were promised back in Thailand.

In the settlement signed last Friday but made public yesterday, Orian agreed to pay the back wages and fines but denied any wrongdoing. In a report aired on NPR earlier this month, he admitted making mistakes, but claims he's being targeted by entrenched labor and agricultural interests. Reached at his office in L.A. yesterday, Orian said he doesn't understand why the government keeps focusing on him instead of the thousands of farmers employing illegal immigrants.

Mr. MORDECHAI ORIAN (President, Global Horizons): But, we don't see the Department of Labor spending their time on investigation there. They're just feeling it's more comfortable to come to employers like us who try to do it right.

KAHN: While the settlement is the largest levied against Orian and Global Horizons, it's not the first. Last year, he agreed to pay the state of Washington $230,000 for back wages and past-due taxes. Orian also had his Washington State business license revoked, and now faces legal problems in other states. U.S. Labor Department officials declined to comment on tape for this story, but did say they have other actions pending against Global Horizons. Meanwhile, Global Horizons has several crews of Thai workers picking oranges in California's central valley.

Ms. PRANI TUMCHABLE(ph) (Supervisor of Thai Work Crew, California): (Foreign spoken)

KAHN: Last month, I followed Global Horizon's supervisor and translator, Prani Tumchable through an orange grove in the town of Visalia as she gave picking instructions to 18 workers from Thailand. Workers filled huge, cloth bags hanging from their necks with oranges, dumping the fruit into bins. Thai worker, Chiya Cornpratchet(ph) said the work is hard, but worth it. Some months, he sends $2,000 home to Thailand.

Prani translates.

Ms. TUMCHABLE: That's for his family - his kids and family.

KAHN: Leaving the grove, Chiya Corn and the workers were transported in vans to several sparsely decorated but clean apartments. Under the H-2A program, all worker transportation and housing must be paid for by the employer. Since that visit, though, Global Horizons has had more trouble with farmers than government regulators. Two of the three orange packers in Visalia cancelled their contracts, citing the high cost of importing guest workers.

Agricultural economist Philip Martin says he doesn't know the specifics of Global Horizon's case, but says in general, Orian is in a tight spot. He says there's no incentive for farmers to import foreign workers legally when cheap, illegal labor is available.

Professor PHILIP MARTIN (Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis): If illegal migration is not reduced, why would employers jump through the hoops and absorb the extra cost of hiring legal guest workers?

KAHN: Martin adds that current proposals being debated in the Senate to expand the guest worker program won't work either, unless tough sanctions against hiring undocumented workers are passed and enforced.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: We have earlier stories at npr.org about Mordechai Orian, plus more on the guest worker program and those Thai workers in California.

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