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Judge who threatened to deny $2.4M in settlements for Thai farm workers approves agreements

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HONOLULU, Hawaii - The federal judge in Hawaii who threatened to deny $2.4 million in settlements for Thai farm workers has signed the agreements.

U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi on Wednesday approved settlements with four Hawaii farms over allegations they exploited hundreds of workers.

Her endorsement comes after she ordered the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to hold a news conference last week clarifying that the four settlements were still subject to her approval.

In an order last month, Kobayashi said the employment commission gave the misleading impression that the settlement proposals were finalized when it announced them in June. The panel should have waited until the agreements received court approval, her order said.

EEOC Regional Attorney Anna Park said Thursday the commission is pleased the agreements have been approved and it can begin distributing money to the workers.

Kobayashi's order warned she could deny the requests to approve the settlements and reset all claims for trial. The EEOC held a news conference via telephone last week to comply with her order.

"I've never been worried about a trial in these cases because the victims' stories are very solid. Although reliving the trauma of the situations they were in on these farms — it's very good that was avoided," said Clare Hanusz, a Honolulu attorney representing dozens of the workers.

"Thankfully it was more of a procedural speed-bump in the process," she said. "We look forward to the victims getting their compensations without additional delay."

According to the settlement agreements, Mac Farms of Hawaii will pay $1.6 million, Kelena Farms will pay $275,000, Captain Cook Coffee Co. will pay $100,000, and Kauai Coffee Co. will 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 previously approved that agreement.

All of the $3.6 million will go directly to the workers, Park said, 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 labour 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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Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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