Thai worker settlements with Hawaii farms at risk
HONOLULU (AP) — A federal judge in Hawaii says she won't consider approving $2.4 million in settlements for hundreds of Thai farm workers until the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission holds a news conference clarifying that the agreements are still subject to court approval.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi is ordering the agency to provide proof of the news conference by Friday. She said in her order issued last week that the EEOC didn't follow rules when it filed the proposed agreements.
The EEOC is planning a news conference in Honolulu on Friday to comply with the order.
Kobayashi's order warns that if the EEOC doesn't comply, the judge may deny the requests to approve the settlements and reset all claims for trial.
The EEOC "ignored the possibility that this court could reject one or more of the consent decrees," Kobayashi's order said. "The EEOC's disregard of the applicable rules and this court's express instructions is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
The agency apologized for its error in a court filing.
Anna Park, a regional attorney for the agency in Los Angeles, said Thursday that it was procedural oversight. "It was clearly a miscommunication on our end. We hope we can now move on for the judge to consider the decrees in the interest of the claimants in the case," she said.
The agency announced in June that it had reached settlement agreements with four Hawaii farms over allegations that they exploited workers.
EEOC attorneys disregarded the judge's instructions on filing the proposed agreements, "apparently so that EEOC officials could announce, during a previously scheduled press conference, that consent decrees had been 'filed' in this case," Kobayashi's order said.
The EEOC should have waited to do so until she approved the settlements, Kobayashi said. The EEOC gave the misleading impression the settlements were final, according to her order.
Park said reporters were told at the news conference that the agreements were still subject to court approval, but that point was ambiguous in the news release the agency issued.
Kobayashi said she will lodge disciplinary complaints with the State Bar of California against Park and Sue Noh, a Los Angeles EEOC supervisory trial attorney. Park said she and Noh won't comment on the disciplinary action.
According to the settlement agreements made public in June, Mac Farms of Hawaii would pay $1.6 million, Kelena Farms would pay $275,000, Captain Cook Coffee Co. would pay $100,000 and Kauai Coffee Co. would pay $425,000. Attorneys for the farms couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc. settled for $1.2 million. Kobayashi has already approved that agreement.
All of the $3.6 million will go directly to the workers, Park said in June, in a distribution process that involves determining who worked on the various farms, for how long and the severity of the abuse workers suffered.
The EEOC filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 against California-based labor contractor Global Horizons and six Hawaii farms, with allegations including workers subjected to discrimination, uninhabitable housing, insufficient food, inadequate wages and deportation threats.
Global Horizons was found liable for the discrimination and abuse of the workers. Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple Co., the last farm that hasn't settled, are scheduled to go to trial.
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