Lori Elmer is a staff attorney with Raleigh-based Legal Aid of North Carolina’s farmworker unit. She recently filed two cases on behalf of foreign nationals who say they were promised agricultural work under the H-2A visa federal guest worker program but were held in squalid conditions against their will, never able to earn back the money they spent to get here.

In the case of Asanok v. Million Express Manpower, filed in federal court, 22 Thai workers allege that the labor contractor charged them thousands in transportation and recruitment fees for work that didn’t materialize, then threatened them against leaving and forced them to work without pay in New Orleans, violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In Sianipar v. GTN Employment Agency, filed in Mecklenberg County, three Indonesian workers make similar allegations. Both cases highlight the potential for fraud and abuse in federal temporary worker programs.

What were your clients told would happen when they came to America?

They were told they’d be working for up to three years, that they were going to earn enough to be able to make a nest egg for their families, educate their children, all the things that people hope for. And they invested in that, they paid the recruitment fees and transportation costs. In the case of the Thai workers, they were charged about $11,250 each. The Indonesian workers paid up to $6,000 to come. One plaintiff mortgaged his family’s ancestral land. They came here ready to work, but it was all a scam.

What happened when they got here?

For the Thai workers, the work ran out within a couple of months and they were able to earn only a small fraction of what they paid to come here. They were moved out of a motel inspected by the labor department and taken to an outbuilding behind the barn belonging to Seo Homsombath, the president of Million Express Manpower. His son displayed a gun to them and told them that he would shoot anyone who tried to help them leave.

For the Indonesian workers, two of the plaintiffs were never given even an hour of work. They were taken directly from the airport to a warehouse in Charlotte, where the farm labor contractor kept them until they escaped.

The H-2A visa is good for only one employer, so by the term of their visas the Indonesian workers couldn’t work anywhere else in the United States. In both cases, immediately upon arrival, the farm labor contractor confiscated their passports and their return airplane tickets.

The Thai workers were also taken to New Orleans at one point. What were they doing there?

Mainly they did demolition and cleanup work of ruined motels and restaurants, places destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. They were demolishing the very building they were being housed in.

Where are your clients now?

I’m not at liberty to say that.

How are these federal programs supposed to work?

Our understanding is that Thai law prevented their charging such exorbitant recruitment fees, and under the H-2A program, the employers are supposed to conform with local, state and federal law. Also under the H-2A program, the employer is supposed to reimburse the cost of transportation to the United States.

Do you believe these cases represent a widespread problem with guest worker programs?

The two cases show a pattern, which is that orders are being submitted not by growers but by farm labor contractors, who do not farm and have no work to offer. These farm labor contractors coordinate with recruiters in the sending nation, and the recruiters are charging hopefuls several thousand dollars.

Additionally, we are concerned about orders that are so short regarding workers being brought in from Asia, just because the transportation costs are so great. Say the order is only for three months. The transportation costs are about $2,000 per person. It’s inconceivable that the farm labor contractor could make enough money legitimately to cover those costs. Inherently, there’s some fraud going on.

For more information, visit www.legalaidnc.org.

Correction (March 8, 2007): Text was changed to indicate that Seo Homsombath’s son did not threaten the workers directly.