Tigard-based Thai restaurant chain Typhoon! has been formally charged for unlawful labor practices, after the state said it discriminated against Thai employees who were brought to the country to work for the restaurant.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries issued the formal charges of civil rights violations on Tuesday, alleging that the Tigard-based company unlawfully paid its Thai employees less than their American counterparts.

BOLI, which is charged with enforcing civil rights laws, said it intends to seek at least $250,000 for each Thai employee subjected to unlawful employment practices by the company. Its Civil Rights Division announced in May that investigators had found substantial evidence that Typhoon! used its leverage over workers recruited from Thailand to impose lower pay, longer working hours and unfavorable contract terms that were not faced by non-Thai employees.

The division has so far identified 11 employees it says were discriminated against and expects to contact others.

'Equal pay for equal work is a fundamental right in our workplaces,' said State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. 'The evidence shows that Typhoon! paid one class of workers less than another because of their national origin. BOLI will always take action to stop that kind of injustice.'

Typhoon! business manager James Thomas said the company could not comment directly on the charges because of their legal nature. But he suggested the company did nothing wrong.

'There's nothing here,' said Thomas.

The case will be presented before an administrative law judge on May 15. Any final order in the case will be issued by BOLI Deputy Commissioner Doug McKean.

It has been a rough few years for the Thai chain. The company has faced scrutiny over the last few years after former cooks claimed Typhoon! abused an international work-visa program to bring chefs to work in the restaurants.

The company closed two of its locations this year, including its flagship location in Northwest Portland, citing poor business.

In July, a three-member arbitration panel cleared the company of claims it was involved in human trafficking charges in a 2008 lawsuit involving a former cook, but did say that Typhoon! did discriminate based on the chef's Thai origin and would have to pay her $268,000 workers compensation claim and unpaid overtime.

In August, Typhoon! president and co-founder Steve Kline died of a heart attack.

Before his death, Kline fought the accusations brought against his company, saying that the human trafficking charges 'demonized Typhoon! as participants in modern slavery and indentured servitude' and called the Avakian allegations 'a witch hunt.'

'The economy, we can deal with,' Kline said in July. 'But anyone can make any wild accusation they want and, in our legal system, it takes a long time to defend yourself.'

Avakian initiated the investigation after several Thai workers personally contacted him in 2010. They claimed to have left their homes and families in Thailand based on the company's promises of a good job and fair wages. Instead, they said they found themselves trapped in unreasonable contracts, receiving lower wages and working longer hours than their American counterparts, who enjoyed better working conditions.

After hearing their personal stories, Avakian invoked his statutory authority to file a commissioner's complaint. It functions like any civil rights complaint filed with BOLI, but offers greater protection against retaliation because individual workers need not file in their own name.

Could pay millions

Avakian said that Typhoon! workers who opposed the practices were threatened with termination and were told they would be forced to return to Thailand and warned that legal action could be taken against them.

BOLI's charges seek non-economic damages of at least $250,000 for each E-2 visa employee discriminated against by Typhoon! based on national origin. BOLI has identified at least 11 Thai workers who were unlawfully paid less than U.S. employees - totaling about $2.75 million in damages if the company is found guilty.

The charges seek wages to compensate those workers and any others similarly situated and also seek an order bringing their pay in line with their non-Thai co-workers.

Typhoon! has six locations in Oregon, including locations in Beaverton and downtown Portland and a catering business run from its Tigard location off Southwest Durham Road.

Additional reporting by Geoff Pursinger

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