The owner of a Thai spa and massage business on Sepulveda Boulevard played a major role in luring Thai farmworkers to the U.S. and then subjecting them to virtual slave labor, a federal indictment alleges.
By Natalie Ragus
A Culver City businesswoman is facing charges of conspiring to lure workers from Thailand with promises of good jobs and then forcing them into virtual slave labor.
Pranee Tubchumpol, owner of the Five Senses Spa Thai Massage at 4349 ½ Sepulveda Blvd., is named in a federal indictment that accuses her of playing a major role in what the FBI says was the largest human-trafficking case in U.S. history.
According to the indictment handed down by a Honolulu grand jury earlier this month, Tubchumpol worked as the director of international relations for Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a Beverly Hills labor contracting firm. The indictment alleges Tubchumpol; the company’s CEO, Mordechai Orian; and five other Global employees lured 400 Thai nationals to the United States under the H2A guest worker program and then forced them into virtual slave labor on farms in Hawaii and across the United States.
Tubchumpol, who is in custody in Hawaii awaiting a Nov. 2 hearing, faces a maximum of 70 years in prison.
According to the indictment, Tubchumpol acted as the liaison between Global and the Thai workers.
Clare Hanusz, a Hawaii-based lawyer who has given legal assistance to some of the workers involved in the case, says Tubchumpol’s role goes far deeper.
“[Tubchumpol] was a big actor in this scheme,” said Hanusz. “She was really [Orian’s] mouthpiece. She made it possible for him to do what he was doing.”
An attorney for Tubchumpol could not be located.
A spokesperson for Global Horizons did not return phone calls requesting comment, and calls to a phone number listed on Global Horizon’s website weren’t answered.
The indictment alleges that Global recruited farmworkers in rural Thailand in 2004 to work in the United States on three-year contracts, promising them they could earn several times their current wages.
The company then charged each worker between $9,500 and $21,000 in recruitment fees, from which Tubchumpol, Orian and the other accused Global employees took generous shares, the indictment says.
The workers calculated that, with the wages they would earn in the U.S., they could pay off the fee within a year. They would then be free to send the rest of their earnings back to their families in Thailand. But some workers never saw a paycheck, or they received checks for amounts far below what was the owed them, the indictment alleges.
Many of the workers had mortgaged their homes to meet the recruitment fee—a debt Global used to keep them in the country against their will, according to the indictment.
The Global employees, the indictment says, “compelled the labor and service of Thai guest workers by threatening to send the workers back to Thailand if the workers complained about late wages [or] insufficient work hours, knowing that if the Thai H2A guest workers were sent back to Thailand, they would be unable to repay their debts, resulting in serious economic harm to them and others.”
Workers who wanted to return to Thailand couldn’t because Global had confiscated their passports, the indictment claims.
One of the workers, who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ken” for fear of retaliation, told a Patch reporter that the conditions on the Yakima, Wash., farm he worked on became unbearable.
“The workers in my group lived in a building that was under construction. It had nothing in it,” he said, speaking through a translator. “It was so isolated, so remote. We didn’t know what to do…. We didn’t know where we were.”
Global employees constantly watched the workers on the farm to make sure they did not escape, Ken said.
Fear for his family consumed him. “[Global] had the keys to my farm,” Ken said. “I was scared. It was very depressing.”
Tubchumpol, Ken said, waved off the workers’ inquiries regarding their missing pay and other matters, saying she would “check with the office.”
Ken later escaped with only the clothes on his back and made his way to Los Angeles, where he eventually found work at a Thai restaurant.
“I feel very betrayed,” he said. “How could [the defendants] do this to us? We are all Thais and they do this to us.”
While Tubchumpol and two other Global employees remain in custody in Hawaii, Orian is free on $1 million bail and required to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors his whereabouts, said FBI agent Tom Simon.
The FBI is working with Thai authorities to locate and extradite two other defendants who remain at large in Thailand.