Human trafficking: California keeps a closer eye on recruiters

From Silicon Valley to the Central Valley, California relies on about 130,000 foreign guest workers to do everything from tech jobs to picking crops. A new law, the first of its kind in the nation, is aimed at cleaning up recruiting. Final part of a series.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Workmen walk along the new eastern section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco in 2013.

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When Bill Kavicky needed more welders for a bridge contract in northern California, he says he searched all the way to Texas and came up empty handed. Then someone suggested bringing in guest workers from Thailand.

Four years later, Mr. Kavicky’s company, Trans Bay Steel, found itself caught up in a labor trafficking scandal that still fills him with regret and frustration today.

The labor contractor Trans Bay hired supplied the nine workers Kavicky needed in 2002, and was supposed to pay their wages and housing. But unbeknownst to him, Kavicky says, the recruiter also allegedly brought over another 39 Thais and put them to work in restaurants in the Los Angeles area.

The 39 workers thought they would get well-paying work with the steel company, advocates who helped them say. Instead, they worked six days a week at the restaurants for little or no pay. Outside of work, they were confined to sub-par quarters. And they were in debt: They had paid the recruiter thousands of dollars in fees.

“There was a lot of emotional suffering on their part.... It’s just tragic,” Kavicky says. He was shocked, he adds. “I never ran into anything like that in my life. I couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that with the government, with the state.”

From Silicon Valley to the Central Valley, California industries rely on about 130,000 foreign guest workers to do everything from tech jobs to picking grapes, peaches, and almonds. Three out of 4 of them are hired through labor contractors, according to rough estimates. A new law has the potential to transform the way those contractors do business – and protect vulnerable workers.

The California Foreign Labor Recruitment Law – the first of its kind in the nation – requires recruiters to meet certain conditions and register with the state. Taking effect in July, it forces businesses that want to use foreign-labor contractors to work with only those that are registered, and to tell the state which contractors they are using. It provides a host of protections for workers, including a rule against charging them any fees.

“People should be able to look up in a registry who is legitimate and who isn’t,” says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking in Los Angeles, which lobbied for the bill. “With transparency, the prevalence of modern slavery decreases.”

‘Let's give them work’

In a small office not far from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that some of the Thai workers helped build, Kavicky recalls his first inkling that something might be wrong with how the recruiter, Yoo Taik Kim of Kota Manpower, did business. A Laotian employee who spoke some Thai told him that the nine men hadn’t been getting paid.

“They started saying they had not received anything from Kota and that Kota had told them I was not paying the bill,” Kavicky says. “I was paying weekly checks to Kota.”

After confronting Mr. Kim, seeing improvements for a few months, and then hearing again from workers that there were problems, Kavicky says he finally cut ties with Kota and paid the workers directly.

While Kavicky was cooperating with labor officials to sort out the mess, he heard from the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles about the dozens of other Thai men, who allegedly were brought over with contracts to work for Trans Bay. He says he never saw those contracts and believes someone at Kota forged the signature of his business partner, who died before the trafficking came to light.

When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer later called Kavicky to discuss the 39, he says, “I explained everything ... and said, ‘Let’s give them work.’ ” He says he was open to doing what it took to make things right.

The settlement with the EEOC was formalized in 2006. In it, Trans Bay denied allegations of discrimination against the Thai workers, but agreed to up to $7,500 in compensation per person, as well as money for education. It also covered relocation expenses for those who chose to work for Trans Bay Steel.

In all, the company paid out about $1 million. Kavicky says 22 Thai men worked for him after the settlement. Others returned to Thailand, or found work, many of them in the Los Angeles area.

Kavicky was not criminally charged, and he testified when Kim was arrested and tried several years later.

Despite Kavicky’s efforts to help the trafficked men, some doubts still exist about his role in the case.

Thai CDC executive director Chanchanit Martorell is skeptical of his version of events. “It’s kind of hard for Trans Bay to basically plead innocence and to pretend they that they were misled … because they did, after all, contract Mr. Kim to procure welders for them,” she says.

The new California law, however, is designed to keep unwary business owners from being duped by recruiters.  

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
Sathaporn Pornsrisirisak, shown with his daughter Kanitta “King” Pornsrisirisak at their home in Fairfield, Calif., in December. After being promised a job as a welder, Pornsrisirisak was held in debt bondage in California by an unscrupulous recruiter for several months before a 2006 settlement with the EEOC paved the way for him to work for Trans Bay Steel.

From welding to forced labor

One of the trafficked welders was Sathaporn Pornsrisirisak, who spent two years working with Trans Bay after the settlement, fabricating large steel pipes for the bridge.

Before his escape, Pornsrisirisak, who mortgaged his home and land to come to the US, was forced to first remodel and then work as a waiter six days a week in a restaurant in Long Beach. He was paid only $200 for three months of 60-hour work weeks.

“The other workers and I had to live in a house where the living conditions were terrible. There was no electricity or gas. We were not able to go anywhere because our passports were taken away,” said Pornsrisirisak,a Buddhist who says he coped with the ordeal through meditation.

After several months of being trapped, Mr. Pornsrisirisak and a small group of Thais escaped and found assistance from the Thai CDC, which was able to secure everyone else’s release. 

Pornsrisirisak says conditions at Trans Bay were fine. He was paid $13 an hour and given $5,000 for rent on an apartment for the first six months. He benefited from other parts of the settlement, as well, but says it still took him about two years to pay off a loan in Thailand he had taken out to help pay the roughly $12,000 the recruiters charged him to come to the US.

He says he never talked to Kavicky about the case: “It was just only work.”

Pornsrisirisak was able to bring his wife and then-9-year-old daughter to the US, after a four-year separation, through special visa provisions for trafficking victims. Today, his wife works at a restaurant and he works packing snack products at a Calbee North America factory.

Of his life here, “he feels like a Thai person living in America, but he likes it. He’s glad he’s here, ” says his daughter, Kanitta, nicknamed King, translating for her father. King attends a community college near their home in Fairfield, Calif.

“After the long fight, I stand here today with pride and joy at the outcome,” Pornsrisirisak said in written testimony to the EEOC. “The most important things for us today that even money cannot compensate are the freedom, righteousness, and family. Even though I was exposed to the worst in America, but at the same time I could also see the best that this country has to offer.”

Keeping a closer eye on the recruiters

Kim was charged with visa fraud and for making false statements on his citizenship application. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 41 months and a $125,000 fine. His public defender told the Associated Press that he misunderstood US immigration and labor laws but had not intended to exploit the workers.

Under its new recruiter law, California will be better positioned to monitor the actions of contractors bringing guest workers into the country.

Had that system been in place 15 years ago, Kavicky says, “this probably wouldn’t have happened.... Whatever they go through now, [Kim] probably wouldn’t have passed.”

When the EEOC announcement came out, the news stories didn’t fully explain Kim’s role or Trans Bay’s efforts to help the workers. A decade later, the way the company was portrayed still rankles Kavicky.

“Today, if you bring up Trans Bay on a web site, you still see all this stuff [about] human trafficking,” he says. He can’t tell for sure how that’s affected potential business. Most of his current customers knew him prior to that time.

Kavicky pulls out a photo album and describes how his employees fabricated giant hinges embedded in the road to stabilize the Bay Bridge in the event of an earthquake. It’s a bittersweet moment, mixing sadness and pride.

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