Know your labor source

Protect your business assets by knowing your labor source.
Photos courtesy of morguefile.com.

With labor shortages and immigration and H-2A woes, it seems there is no end to the difficulties growers face in hiring workers. If you learn of a reliable source offering quality laborers at a reasonable cost, you likely would be interested, but be aware that a new wrinkle has emerged; those workers may not be who they seem.

Uncovering forced labor in America

When the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report was released in June, the United States was included for the first time. Ranked as a Tier 1 nation, the U.S. is among those countries whose governments fully comply with the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist here.

In a 2004 report to the National Institute of Justice, Kevin Bales and Steven Lize define human trafficking as a criminal process with the end result of a victim being forced into involuntary labor or slavery. They define slavery as “the complete control of a person for economic exploitation by violence or the threat of violence.” Although slavery in the strictest sense, that of one person owning another, has long been illegal, U.S. law states that one person’s being subject to the will of another and “in a state of enforced compulsory service to another” is essentially slavery. Human trafficking is the vehicle that brings a person into involuntary service as a domestic, sex or agricultural worker, the industries most affected in this country.

Facts and figures

Data compiled by the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and others, such as the nonprofit agency Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) indicate that 10,000 or more people are enslaved here. States with high incidence rates include California, Florida, New York and Texas. The DOJ estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the country each year.

While it may seem improbable that people could be lured into slavery in 21st-century America, for the poor and undereducated it is all too easy. Just as some are drawn by the promises of get-rich-quick schemes, people desperate to provide for their families and improve their standards of living can be duped into victimization, and some of those are pressed into involuntary service on America’s farms.

Criminalization of the farm labor market

That victimization may begin in a foreign country, with dreams of a golden life in the U.S., or on our own shores. Unscrupulous labor contractors lure workers with false promises, and then slowly control them through intimidation, claims of debt, confiscation of legal documents and violence. Far from home and often lacking language skills and support networks, workers are trapped in harsh conditions with little or no pay.

In 2000 and 2001, up to 700 Mexicans and Guatemalans were forced to work in Florida citrus groves by labor contractors Ramiro and Juan Ramos. Given little or no compensation, the workers were controlled by threats of violence. After Ramiro assaulted a driver he suspected of helping victims escape, a farm workers’ group enlisted the support of the Justice Department. The Ramoses were convicted on forced labor charges in 2002. Each is serving 15 years and was fined $20,000, and Ramiro forfeited $3 million in property.

In another case in Florida, about 30 people, most of whom were undocumented Mexicans, were tricked into harvesting tomatoes without pay. Abel Cuello and associates “bought” workers smuggled into the country by a third party. They were intimidated with violent promises and convinced that they were obligated to work off $1,500 debts. Federal investigators were alerted when five victims escaped and were assisted by a community organization. Cuello and his co-conspirators were sentenced to short prison terms in 1999, and Cuello was ordered to pay $29,000 in victim restitution.

Although one prosecutor termed Florida “ground zero” for human trafficking in agriculture, the problem is widespread. Cases have been documented in New York, North Carolina and Washington, as well as other states.

One victim’s story

A Mexican named Miguel was one of the Florida victims, according to Free The Slaves. He was prompted to seek work in the U.S. when his son was diagnosed with cancer, and his earnings were insufficient to support treatment.

He also couldn’t afford transportation, so he accepted an offer to travel for no up front cost with the promise to pay later. He landed in an orange grove, where he was forced to work under the threat of physical harm.

“Well, I felt like a slave from the moment that I arrived because we couldn’t pay for the ride and because we had to pay for that and then they started to threaten us,” Miguel told Free the Slaves.

Help arrived in the form of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.ciw-online.org). Miguel was hesitant to speak with representatives who visited the grove, but later contacted the group. Ultimately, he came to trust the coalition and was rescued.

Today he is employed legitimately and is able to send money home, where his son is now healthy.

Protecting your operation

While the penalties for human trafficking and brokering in captive workers are clear, the liability of growers in such cases is not. In addition to criminal charges, victims have sued many abusive contractors. Whether or not a farm could be implicated in such schemes, no operation wants to fall prey to unethical labor contractors.

While forced laborers may appear to be legal H-2A workers and may even have documentation, be aware that dishonest agencies may charge recruits thousands of dollars for temporary visas, while failing to make good on promises of good wages. In addition, while most coming into the U.S. for farm work are Hispanic, one contractor brought victimized Thai, Laotian and Indonesian citizens into North Carolina in 2005.

The ongoing problem of farm labor has become more complicated with the recognition of involuntary work practices within the United States.

To ensure that your workers are not victims, scrutinize the agency providing laborers. Ask for and check references, and insist on legal workers. Consult local authorities if a contractor does not appear legitimate. Be skeptical if such H-2A requirements as guaranteed wages and hours, transportation and housing aren’t enforced. If it sounds too good to be true, it may be a scam.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington (State) Growers’ League, said in an interview with KUOW radio that employers should verify that contractors have current state and federal licenses on file with the U.S. Department of Labor and secured by bond. “Anybody who jumps through those hoops, pretty good chance they’re legit,” he added.

How do you recognize an enslaved worker? In his book, “The Slave Next Door,” Bales says victims are tucked into the background of our lives, whether in vegetable fields, restaurant kitchens or private homes, but share common characteristics.

Be suspicious of people who are …

  • working or being held involuntarily;
  • not free to change employers;
  • not in control of earnings;
  • unable to move freely or are being watched or followed;
  • afraid to discuss his/her situation in the presence of others;
  • victims of assault or threatened violence for refusing to work;
  • forced to pay a false debt for transportation or visas; and/or
  • stripped of passports or other legal documents.

If you suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the Human Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at 888-373-7888 or local law enforcement.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.