Farm workers are some of the most oppressed workers in the United States. In some cases, they are subject to physical and psychological abuse in the fields. In the worst and most extreme cases, they live in conditions constituting modern-day slavery.
The United States formally abolished slavery in 1865, however, well over a century later, workers are still enslaved and experience threats, violence, coercion, and manipulation.
In 2013 there are an estimated 27 million enslaved persons in the world. In the United States, nearly 15,000 enslaved men and women are trafficked into the country annually. Of those, about half will be forced to work in the sex trade with the other half forced into other industries including agriculture.
Definition of Terms: Smuggling vs. Human Trafficking vs. Modern-Day Slavery
These three terms differ from each other, though they are intertwined. Smuggling refers to the facilitation of the entry of a person into a place of which they are not a citizen, resident, or authorized visitor in order to obtain financial or other material benefit. In cases of human trafficking, victims experience a loss of freedom and are transported by traffickers, who buy and sell them in pursuit of profit. If a victim of smuggling or human trafficking is forced into labor and/or sexual exploitation, it can become a case of modern-day slavery. Slavery is working against your will with little or no pay under the threat of violence or other punishment.
Farm Workers and U.S. Slavery
From the country’s inception, landowners in the United States have always had a source of free or cheap agricultural labor. During the early years of colonization, landowners in North America used indentured servants from Europe to tend the fields. Beginning in the early 17th century, thousands of enslaved persons were imported from Africa into forced farm labor. Despite the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, many laws and ordinances were subsequently applied to limit the rights of freed slaves. This set of laws were collectively known as the Black Codes (modeled after the Slave Codes).
Often times former enslaved persons would find themselves back in the fields, working as punishment for civil infractions or to pay off unjustly levied debt. Situations in which workers were tricked or forced into signing contracts that kept them in debt or limited their rights were not uncommon and were legal in some states. The conditions of many black farm workers remained bleak in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Freed enslaved persons and their descendants could not claim full citizenship until the passing of civil rights legislation nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Farm workers of all races still suffer from the enduring legacy of slavery and racism. Although the demographics of the workforce have shifted, agricultural systems in the U.S. remain oppressive and in some uncommon and horrific cases, constitute slavery itself. While extreme situations like these are uncommon, there have been multiple legally recognized cases of modern-day slavery in U.S. agriculture.
Immigrants and Human Trafficking
Although immigrants are not the only group vulnerable to slavery, they are a population especially at risk.
Factors including debt-causing World Bank initiatives and U.S. economic policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA have created instability and economic catastrophe in countries around the world. Populations vulnerable to exploitation increase in direct relation to declines in the standard of living.
People from affected countries find themselves with few choices other than to migrate from their home to places where markets exist for their labor. Many will incur debts to smugglers as well as other costs associated with this journey.
Immigrants may be lured to the United States with promises of jobs only to then be forced into servitude. Many may be trafficked from place to place. Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable to threats of deportation, arrest, and violence. Those with H-2A visas are specifically vulnerable to abuse and coercion, as employers are able to withhold wages, passports, and identification.
In one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the country (U.S. vs. Orian) it was alleged that more than 1,100 Thai workers were brought to the United States through the H-2A guest-worker visa program and then forced to work under horrific conditions. In some cases, workers were allegedly stripped of their passports and kept under 24-hour guarded surveillance while living in rat and insect-infested housing. These workers each paid $8,000 to $20,000 to recruiters for their jobs, taking out loans, and using their ancestral land as collateral and were told that they would be sent back home if they complained about their pay or working conditions. Despite three of the defendants’ guilty pleas, federal prosecutors dropped all charges one month prior to the trial. The Criminal Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division felt they could not prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the case against Global Horizons Manpower Company, and its CEO Mordechai Orian, (The New York Times). Armed with four years of investigation and evidence from interviews with Thai farm workers, the Thai Community Development Center in L.A. continues to seek justice for these workers.
“The dismissal of the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history comes on the 17th anniversary of the famed El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case, considered the first case of modern-day slavery in the U.S. However, instead of moving forward to combat labor trafficking and prosecute its perpetrators, the Justice Department has sent a signal to all traffickers that they have nothing to fear if they go through the motions of obtaining a temporary visa [H2A]”. – Chanchanit Martorel, Thai CDC Executive Director.
Focus: Modern-Day Slavery in Florida
In Florida, there have been several cases of modern day slavery in the fields among immigrants and citizens. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, helped to uncover and start federal prosecution of many of these cases.
Since 1997, more than 1000 enslaved persons have gained freedom in Florida. An African American man, Jewel Goodman, was held against his will and forced into debt-bondage in Hastings, FL. Like many farm workers, he had been threatened with violence if he tried to leave the camp. After several failed attempts, Goodman escaped in the middle of the night. It took him two hours to get to the safety of a friend’s place in town (Tampa Bay Times).
Camps are often isolated, with little governmental oversight, making it easy for such horrific conditions to exist. In Florida, bosses have used crack cocaine and alcohol to keep workers dependent and perpetually in debt. Many people are recruited from homeless shelters and soup kitchens and immediately become indebted.
Ronald Evans, Sr., was one such boss. “The owner of two migrant labor camps was sentenced to 30 years in prison Friday after he was found guilty of hiring drug addicts and homeless people at minimum wages and then selling them crack cocaine, beer and cigarettes at inflated prices. [Evans] was convicted in August on 57 charges of engaging in a criminal enterprise, distributing crack cocaine, dealing in contraband, spoiling the environment, violating federal farmworker statutes and more than four dozen counts of improper financial transactions.he was convicted of running a drug ring and fixing financial records and is currently serving a 30-year jail sentence (The Associated Press).
Another case from Southern Florida as reported in 2007 by The Independent: “Three Florida fruit-pickers, held captive and brutalized by their employer for more than a year, finally broke free of their bonds by punching their way through the ventilator hatch of the van in which they were imprisoned. Once outside, they dashed for freedom. When they found sanctuary one recent Sunday morning, all bore the marks of heavy beatings to the head and body. One of the pickers had a nasty, untreated knife wound on his arm. Police would learn later that another man had his hands chained behind his back every night to prevent him escaping, leaving his wrists swollen.” The people responsible for enslaving these workers are serving a 12-year sentence.
In Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, three people were arrested and charged with “conspiring to commit forced labor and visa fraud.” After persuading 34 Haitians to travel to Florida with the promise of well-paying jobs, the suspects held the workers’ passports and threatened them with deportation. The indictment included claims that the workers lived in substandard housing, were malnourished, and denied access to medical care. As in the U.S. vs. Orian case, these charges were also dropped by the federal prosecutor. Despite evidence and testimony given by the Haitian guest workers and findings from numerous federal and state agencies (including ICE, Department of Homeland Security, and the Alachua County Sherriff’s Office), the prosecutors claimed they were unable to prove culpability beyond a reasonable doubt. (Gainesville Sun).
These cases speak to many inadequacies and injustices in our society. Immigration policies that keep immigrants isolated and in fear of reporting abuses, a guest worker program with a drastic lack of oversight, and the need for cheap labor are all factors that foster environments where slavery can exist. The legacy of racism in the United States can be seen in punitive and xenophobic laws against immigrants, an inept justice system, and exclusion of farm workers from labor protection standards that had been won in the early 20th century.
Slavery remains a lucrative business. Until we have an agricultural industry and government policies that encourage human rights over profits, we must continue the fight against slavery that began 400 years ago until slavery itself is truly abolished.