A US federal agency has filed lawsuits over the unequal treatment of more than 500 migrant workers from India brought into the country to work at shipyards in Mississipi and Texas, and over 200 Thai farm labourers brought in to work in Hawaii and Washington state.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said on Wednesday that the workers were forced to live in substandard housing and were exploited with fees that meant that for some their net earnings were almost zero.
The EEOC termed the treatment of the workers as amounting to human trafficking, even though they had been brought into the country on work visas.
"Foreign workers should be treated as equals when working in the United States, not as second-class citizens," said Olophius Perry, the EEOC's Los Angeles district director.
Last year, Mordechai Orian, the head of the labour firm that had recruited the Thai farm labourers, was arrested and charged in a federal court with forced labour conspiracy.
In lawsuits filed on Tuesday, the EEOC said that Global Horizons Inc, Orian's Beverly Hills-based company, had recruited the labourers to work on six farms in Hawaii and two in Washington state between 2003 and 2007.
The workers earned between $8.50-9.50 an hour to harvest crops, but many were forced to pay recruitment fees of between $12,000 and $25,000, EEOC officials said.
They also said that the workers had to take high interest loans and were charged for lodging and food.
Michael Green, Orian's Hawaii-based attorney, has disputed the claims, however.
"The conditions were fine and Orian would never allow anything different," Green said. "The people who came here were paid, they were not living in squalor or bad conditions, they were paid more money than they ever were in Thailand, and they enjoyed their work."
As the federal criminal case against Orian, an Israeli national, continues, he is required to submit to electronic monitoring.
'Nickeled and dimed'
The EEOC says that the workers were being subjected to fees until they had almost no income left at all.
"They were nickeled and dimed to the point where they really didn't have any pay," said Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC Los Angeles office.
The EEOC says that some of the workers were forced to live in crowded conditions, and their quarters were infested with rats and insects.
Workers of other nationalities on the same farms were not subject to the same conditions, Park said.
Officials also said that the workers had their passports taken from them, and were threatened with deportation if they complained.
The EEOC says that some of the Thai workers have since returned to their home country, and that the total number of affected workers could be about 400.
Some of the workers have now been given visas for victims of human trafficking, but EEOC officials would not say how many won that designation.
In the case of the 500 Indian workers, the EEOC alleged in a lawsuit in Mississippi that Signal International LLC, a Gulf coast marine services company, subjected them to segregated facilities and discriminatory treatment.
It said the Indian men paid recruiters up to $20,000 to come to the United States, and after they arrived they were forced to pay rent for crowded housing in fenced camps.