“These people are being held in captivity, in some cases in chains… A couple of workers literally forcibly busted out of a truck in which they were held against their will. So, the norm there is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery. And this is taking place in the United States of America.”
– Senator Bernie Sanders
Victims of labor trafficking have been found among the nation’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers, including men, women, families, or children as young as 5 or 6 years old who harvest crops and raise animals in fields, packing plants, orchards, and nurseries. Victims of this form of trafficking include U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, and foreign nationals with temporary H-2A work visas.
Agricultural work is often isolated and transient, and income can be irregular. Workers often see peeks and lulls in employment due to changing harvest seasons, and may travel up and down the country to find work. Unscrupulous crew leaders exploit these conditions of vulnerability, adding debt, violence and threats to hold farmworkers in conditions of servitude.
A young man came to the U.S. to look for work, because he needed to support his aging parents. A recruiter helped transport the man along with several others. Once in Florida, the recruiter offered the men jobs picking tomatoes. The young man was forced to work extremely long hours. Once the recruiter beat two of the other workers when they tried to take a break, and he threatened to harm the other workers if they stopped work. He also threatened to report the workers to immigration if they attempted to leave.
*Based on calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
When does it become trafficking?
Force – Isolation in migrant camps and rural areas; control over transportation and communication with outsiders; physical or sexual abuse.
Fraud – False promises about the job; altered contracts and pay-statements; exorbitant recruitment fees for jobs that have low wages in actuality.
Coercion – Exploitation of foreign national workers’ lack of familiarity with the language, laws and customs of the U.S.; verbal and psychological abuse; threats of deportation or other harm to the victim or the victim’s family; confiscation of passports and visas; manipulation of debt workers took on to obtain the job; debt bondage through high fees for rent, food, tools, transportation and other expenses.
*The above list is not comprehensive or cumulative. One element of force, fraud or coercion may be present, or many.
Isolation – Farm work often necessarily occurs in rural, sparsely populated areas. Migrant farmworkers traditionally live in housing provided by their employer. Crewleaders or employers who wish to exert control over farmworkers may keep them confined to the property, sometimes with the use of locks, armed guards or dogs. Farmworkers that travel with their crewleader along the migrant stream to find work face further barriers to obtaining assistance, due to constant unfamiliarity with new surroundings.
Exclusion from certain labor laws – Migrant and seasonal farmworkers are vulnerable to exploitation due to their exclusion from basic labor protections afforded to workers in other industries, such as laws governing overtime pay, the right to organize and bargain collectively, minimum wage (for some workers), workers’ compensation (for some workers) and less restrictive child labor laws. Although some protections exist specifically for farmworkers – such as health protections concerning work in the fields and exposure to pesticides, and the right to sanitary housing – these protections are not adequately enforced.
Immigration Status – Traffickers often threaten foreign national workers with arrest and deportation, even workers who have the legal right to work in the U.S. Farmworkers on an H-2A temporary work visa are prohibited from working for an employer other than the one who requested their visa, leaving the worker vulnerable to abuse by an employer, crewleader, or recruitment agency.
Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, numerous cases of slavery have emerged in agriculture. In the state of Florida alone, the Department of Justice has prosecuted 7 labor trafficking cases, assisting over 1,000 victims. Most recently, on September 2, 2010, the Department of Justice issued an indictment alleging that Global Horizons, a labor recruiting company, recruited over 400 Thai workers and forced them to work in agriculture in at least 13 states by ensuring the workers accrued a substantial debt, confiscating their passports and visas, and deporting workers that didn’t cooperate with the company’s demands.