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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Forced Labor Is More Common In the U.S. Than You Might Think


In towns and cities across the richest nation on earth, people are forced to perform jobs against their will. They work in agriculture, manufacturing and many other industries, including the sex trade. Sometimes they are hidden in plain sight: in the fields picking fruits and vegetables or working on construction sites.

The State Department itself concedes the Unites States is a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.” Those subjected to this fate include both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.

Human trafficking can be found in a variety of American industries and markets. While most of the scant media coverage around forced labor in America centers around the sex trade, human trafficking also occurs in industries such as hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care, and domestic service. Reports include people who worked temporary visa programs and filled labor needs in those industries who were later identified as human trafficking victims. As of 2012, the top countries of origin for foreign victims of human trafficking in America were Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Honduras, Indonesia and Guatemala.

Sex trafficking occurs in all 50 states

Most American media coverage around forced labor centers around the sex trade. The sad reality is that it occurs across the country and is a modern form of slavery. As has been well documented, traffickers lure victims and force them into sex work by using violence, threats, lies, and debt bondage.

This can occur “in a range of venues including fake massage businesses, via online ads or escort services, in residential brothels, on the street or at truck stops, or at hotels and motels,” according to the Polaris Project, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery.

The sex trade is a profitable one -- ranging from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia, according to a 2014 report by the Urban Institute. So, it should not come as a surprise that women, men, and children continue to be sold against their will for sex in towns and cities across all 50 states.

While some are foreign nationals, many are American citizens. Polaris identified almost 6,000 sex trafficking cases involving American citizens, through operating the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and the BeFree Textline -- which provide services and case management to survivors of human trafficking in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

The nonprofit says traffickers profit by finding and recruiting people they can exploit. Victims are made “elaborate promises” of a dream job, a place to live, or gifts of clothing and jewelry. Sometimes recruiters can even pose as being romantically interested in victims.

Awareness is growing on this issue, but it persists nonetheless -- and there's certainly much work to be done.

Labor trafficking preys on foreign nationals

While many victims of sex trafficking are Americans, more foreign victims of forced labor in the U.S. are found in other sectors, according to the anti-slavery nonprofit End Slavery Now. Some labor trafficking victims enter the country under either work- or student-based visa programs, while others are targeted once they arrive in the U.S.

The Polaris Project describes labor trafficking as a “form of modern slavery that exists throughout the United States.” Labor traffickers threaten victims and use violence, lies and debt bondage “to force people to work against their will in many different industries.” Labor traffickers lure victims to the U.S. with promises of good pay jobs, education or travel opportunities. When victims arrive in the U.S., they find they are trapped into awful working conditions. Their passports and money are often confiscated, so they believe they have no way out of their work situation.

Agriculture is an area where forced labor happens all too often. Anti-Slavery International describes farm workers as “some of the poorest paid and most exploited workers within the U.S. economy.” They only earn an average of $10,000 a year and lack some of the rights others American workers are guaranteed, including the right to overtime pay. They also often work without health insurance, sick leave, pensions or job security.

Those conditions are “the fertile ground that gives rise to forced labor in U.S. fields,” Anti-Slavery International says. Most of America's migrant farm workers come from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti -- places with high poverty rates and political unrest that drive migration.

“Unfortunately, the agriculture industry seems to treat most living beings a mere commodities,” Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, told Triple Pundit.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers assisted in the prosecution of a number of multi-state forced labor operations across the Southeastern U.S. and has helped liberate over 1,200 workers held against their will as a result. One of the cases the CIW helped in resulted in a federal grand jury indicting six people in Southwest Florida for making money off of farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala by forging documents and committing identity theft.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy labeled the case in Southwest Florida as “slavery, plain and simple.” For two years, over a dozen people were held as slaves on the property of those indicted. The workers were forced to sleep in shacks and box trucks. They were unpaid for picking produce and charged for food and showers. If they attempted to escape, they were beaten. The case was the seventh farm labor operation in Florida to be prosecuted in Florida.

The H-2 guest worker program is a breeding ground for forced labor

A federal program exists to temporarily bring foreign national workers to the U.S., called the H-2 guest worker program. But there's a serious problem: A 2013 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) characterizes the conditions allowed by the law as “rife with labor and human rights violations committed by employers who prey on a highly vulnerable workforce.” Guest workers who participate in the H-2 program are “systematically exploited and abused,” the report declared.

One of the biggest problems with the program is that workers are bound to the employers who bring them to this country. They can’t change jobs if they are mistreated for that would jeopardize their immigration status. And that’s what makes them so vulnerable to abuse. “If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation,” the SPLC report stated. So, what results is that they can be victims of human trafficking and debt servitude.

“Forced labor exists within the H-2 programs because of their structure,” Naomi Tsu, deputy legal director of SPLC, told TriplePundit. “There is a huge power imbalance between employers and workers.”
The U.S. offers two types of guest worker programs. The H-2A program is for agricultural work, while the H-2B program is for non-agricultural positions. Despite the distinctions in the programs, the nature stays the same. Both programs allow the guest worker to only work for the employer who petitioned the Department of Labor for their services. With both programs, workers have little recourse if they experience abuse or violations.

Most employers rely on either private individuals or agencies to both find and recruit guest workers in their home countries, which are generally in Mexico and Central America. The labor recruiters usually charge the workers fees to cover travel, visa and other costs. Sometimes the fees are thousands of dollars. Recruiters also require workers to leave them collateral like the deed to their house or car to ensure they fulfill the term of their labor contract.

Guest workers typically arrive in the U.S. with a debt of $500 to over $10,000, and sometimes they have to pay high interest rates on their debt. The majority of guest workers struggle to repay their debts, and interest continues to accrue -- leaving them vulnerable to debt servitude and human trafficking.

A report by Farmworker Justice on the H-2 guest worker program contains a case study on a man from Thailand named Chinnawat who ended up the victim of human trafficking. Brought to North Carolina to do farm work in 2005, he took out loans with his house as collateral to pay the $11,250 recruitment fee to work as an H-2A worker in vegetable fields. He ended up in poor conditions in a motel with six or seven in a room. At one point he was housed with other guest workers in a barn filled with insects and mice.

After several weeks, the work dried up, and only a few workers were allowed to work in the fields every day. The others who didn’t work received no pay, which meant they had no money to pay for their debt. They were told to not leave the farm and were afraid the police might arrest them if they did. The contractor often cleaned his gun in their presence to serve as a warning to not leave.

Chinnawat eventually fled and, with the help of a legal aid attorney, he obtained a visa reserved for victims of trafficking. Most workers in his situation do not have such good outcomes.

The problems of forced labor within the H-2 programs highlight the need for immigration reform. “We have to create an immigration policy that accords with our values, and part of that has to be creating a line that regular people can get into in order to enter the United States,” Tsu said.

The U.S. has long been a “beacon for many people in the world,” she pointed out. If more workers are needed in this country, “Then we should just do what we’ve always done which is to let people come in with freedom of movement in the community that they are part of building.”

Image credit: Flickr/CWMc

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman