Slavery is a reality in many parts of the world today, and the United States is no exception. In recent years, several cases of slavery in the US food system have been exposed and brought to trial. In most cases, the victims were temporary agricultural workers trying to support their families back home. These workers experienced a range of physical abuses at the hands of their employers and were also denied access to their passports and visas. Most cases of slavery also involve human trafficking, which is defined as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.
Slave labor exists in several forms such as “forced labor,” in which workers are required to labor against their will, and “debt bondage” in which workers are indebted to their employer before the work even begins. Often times, workers in conditions of forced labor and debt bondage also experience physical abuse or threats of violence at the hands of employers.
Temporary immigrant workers, especially those who work in the fields, are highly susceptible to exploitation by labor contractors and land owners. With malicious intent, employers recruit the workers by falsely promising steady work and good wages. The workers are then taken to farms in remote areas where they are forced to work under the threat of deportation and physical violence. With their employer holding their passports, the workers feel trapped and don’t know whom to trust.
The circumstances described below directly constitute “slavery” as defined by the US Department of Justice.
Sheep & Cattle Herders
Far from their homelands of Chile and Peru, many workers come to the U.S. each year to work as sheep and cattle herders. The labor rights organizationVerité has documented the conditions that these immigrant workers endure far from the public eye.[3,4] The following accounts are based on interviews and research conducted by Verité.
Before their work even began, workers were indebted to their employer for recruitment fees and the costs associated with transportation. Under a special H-2A provision, the costs of food and transportation can be legally deducted from a worker’s wages during the first half of employment. The same provision allows employers to require their workers to be “on call for up to 24 hours per day, 7 days per week” while avoiding minimum wage standards.
Upon arrival, the workers’ passports and visas were taken and held for the duration of employment. Without personal documentation, the workers were unable to leave out of fear of being deported.
The ranches were in very remote areas where the workers had little or no access to telephones, transportation or even sanitary bathrooms. Most of the workers were told they were not allowed to leave the property at any time or they would be fired. Consequently, the workers were dependent on their employers for basic necessities such as food and water. In some cases, workers waited days for food and water to arrive. The U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against one Colorado sheep ranch for allegedly “beating, starving and exploiting” its workers over a period of ten years.
The men commonly worked between 80 and 90 hours each week and were “on call” at all times. Two of the workers recounted working 17-hour days with one 15-minute break. In the spring, the workers were required to check on the pregnant cows every half hour throughout the night. When a Verité reporter asked how they were physically able to do it, one worker replied: “How could we let an animal die? It was not their fault that there weren’t enough of us.”
Despite the fact that herders have a high injury and illness rate, over 60% of the workers interviewed received no medical attention for injuries they sustained on the job. The workers were unable to seek medical attention on their own as they were in an unfamiliar area often with no access to transportation or even a phone.
Although they were told their salary would be $1,400/month, the average herder received only $800/month. After deductions were taken for food and transportation, the workers ended up making as little as $600/month– less than half of the original agreement.
It’s important to understand that once workers have entered into an H-2A agreement, they must fulfill the entire duration of employment. If they leave the job before that time, the employer is no longer responsible for coordinating and paying for their return trip home. The employer can also transfer the workers to another location against their will. Refusing to go is seen as a violation of the contract and the worker must pay his or her own way home. Reflecting on his experience in the US, one worker told Verité: “We thought the experience of working on a ranch in [the] US would be marvelous. But it turns out that the conditions there were much worse than our life in Chile.”
In the citrus groves of Florida and the Carolinas, a group of workers endured a life of slavery for approximately two years at the hands of several farm owners. In this case, the workers were recruited from Mexico and Guatemala and told they would make enough money to support their families. However, shortly after arriving at the location of employment, the workers found the conditions to be very different from what was promised.
As documented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the immigrant workers were beaten and physically threatened for attempting to escape. At times, the farm owners even chained the workers inside a box truck to keep them from escaping. To further ensure that the workers would not leave, the employers held the workers’ visas and passports.[5,6]
U.S. attorney Doug Molloy called the conditions: “Slavery, plain and simple.“
In addition to charges of physical assault and forced labor, the employers pled guilty to forging documents and identity theft as well as deducting the costs of showers from the workers’ wages. All 6 defendants were successfully prosecuted in this case, which is just one of 8 slavery cases brought to trial since 1997.
Pea and Bean Workers
Another recent case of slavery in the United States involved over 100 Haitian workers laboring in the pea and bean fields of southern Florida. The men and women were recruited by Haitian labor contractors who worked closely with farm owners in Florida. The workers were promised “high steady wages and free room and board for three years.”
Upon arrival, the workers’ visas and passports were taken to ensure they would not try to leave. Limiting a worker’s freedom of movement is a common tool used by exploitive labor contractors.
Three defendants were charged with conspiring to commit forced labor and visa fraud.[8,9] The federal indictment stated that the defendants “supplied substandard housing and few beds, and denied necessary medical care, causing the workers to suffer chronic hunger, weight loss, illnesses and fatigue.”[8,9] Although the incident was not included in the charges, one of the defendants was identified as the man who raped one of the workers.
Conditions were also described in which a worker was required to labor in fields that had just recently been sprayed with agricultural chemicals. The worker reported having permanent scars as a result of the incident.
Like many enslaved workers, these men and women were forced to work under the constant threat of deportation.
Yet another recent case…
In September of 2010, a Beverly Hills labor recruiting firm was federally indicted on charges of conducting the largest human trafficking operation in U.S. history. The owner and four employees allegedly lured approximately 400 Thai workers to the United States under the H-2A guest visa program. The workers were promised high monthly salaries, but according to the Thai workers, they were forced into “virtual slave labor with substandard wages, inadequate food and housing and threats of deportation and physical violence if they tried to escape.” The recruiting firm also confiscated the workers’ passports upon arrival. Although the Thai workers were brought to the U.S. legally, they ended working in conditions of slavery on farms across the country.
Knowledge is Power
The reality is that slavery still occurs in the United States today. Far from the public eye, immigrant workers across the country endure mental and physical abuse at the hands of their employers. The U.S. Department of Labor is largely failing to protect these workers from fundamental human rights abuses. Food Empowerment Project is determined that the public be informed of these types of abuses, so when opportunities arise, we can be prepared to take action.
We support the equality of all beings by encouraging individuals to not only choose a vegan lifestyle, but to also purchase products that are free of slavery and free from the suffering of all beings.
 “Human Trafficking.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2010. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html(9/3/10)
 “Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.” United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 3/3/2013 from http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/crm/htpu.php
 United States Department of Labor. Special Procedures Labor Certification Process Sheepherders and Goatherders Under the H-2A Program. Retrieved 3/3/2013 from http://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/fm/fm_24-01a.pdf
 “Immigrant Workers in US Agriculture: The Role of Labor Brokers in Vulnerability to Forced Labor.” Verité. 2010. Retrieved 3/3/2013 from http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2174&context=globaldocs
 “Sixth Immokalee Slavery Case Suspect Arrested – Group Accused of Keeping Beating, Stealing from Immokalee Laborers.” Coalition of Immokalee Workers. 2008. http://ciw-online.org/Slavery_plain_and_simple.html (8/1/10)
 Katrina Vanden Heuvel. “The Nation: Florida’s Modern Slavery…The Museum.” 2010. NPR and The Nation.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125296794 (8.5.10)
 “Eight, and Counting…” Coalition of Immokalee Workers. 2010. Retrieved 3/3/2013 from http://www.ciw-online.org/eight_and_counting.html
 Karen Voyles. “Three charged with Human Trafficking on Alachua County Farms.” The Gainesville Sun. 2010.http://www.gainesville.com/article/20100706/ARTICLES/100709714/1139?p=2&tc=pg&tc=ar (8/8/10)
 Federal Indictment. United States District Court For The Northern District Of Florida Gainesville Division. 2010. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2177327/carline-hot-pickers-superceding-indictment.txt (8/23/17)
 Teresa Watanabe. “Federal grand jury indicts associates of Beverly Hills firm in human-trafficking case.” Los Angeles Times. 2010.http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0904-human-trafficking-20100904,0,708204.story (9/6/10)