Not all slaves are entirely unpaid
By Hannah Penfield
Imagine you have a job. It’s your dream job, but only because you cannot get any other jobs as an illegal immigrant. You are paid around $10,000 US a year, if you’re lucky. That’s less than half of the poverty threshold for a family of four. You have none of the normal rights of a US worker: no right to organize, to overtime pay. You have no health insurance, sick leave, vacations, pension, or job security. This is the life of a farm worker subjected to forced labor, as described by antislavery.org.
There are no firm numbers, because forced labor is a secretive criminal activity, but antislavery.org estimates that about five percent of farm workers are subject to forced labor. The vast majority of these workers are migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. Most of those are undocumented, and therefore are easy pickings for traffickers looking to exploit these vulnerable immigrants.
However, not all of these migrant workers are undocumented. Legal workers and even US citizens can be victims of forced labor due to the need to find work, transportation, and shelter. People who are in serious need are the most vulnerable.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers’ rights activist group based out of Florida, documents cases of forced labor. Every case they have documented involves some form of debt bondage. Debt bondage is forcing someone to work off a debt; the debt is generally inflated over time with interest or the initial amount is raised without warning. In these cases, traffickers promise to provide transportation to work locations on credit, saying that the debt will be paid off quickly through work. Often, the workers arrive thousands of dollars in debt. This gives the trafficker all the power.
Once this power structure is in place, the worker is forced to work 12 to 14 hour days, generally from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Their wages, which are the only means the workers have of paying off their debt, face deductions for transport, accommodations, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments (a scam to take more money). Wages are sporadically paid, but often there are so many deductions that the wages are reduced to nothing.
Employers also expend some effort to protect their free labor. They work in what can be described as concentration camps, facing total domination and brutality. Workers live in small, poorly kept trailers with 11 to 15 fellow workers. They are under constant surveillance and are tracked by armed guards. The employers and guards also threaten the worker’s family. In some severe cases, public beatings, pistol-whippings, and shootings are used as intimidation.
This type of slavery is the easiest to fight back against. Simply choose carefully where you buy your food. Taco Bell, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, and Bon Appétit have all signed agreements with CIW to pay fair prices for their vegetables and to not work with companies who use forced labor. The companies that CIW is currently boycotting to stop using slave labor for their stores and restaurants are Kroger, Ahold (parent company of Stop & Shop and Giant), Publix, Aramark, Sodexo, and Chipotle. Avoid these companies and visit ciw-online.org to find out more.
Special thanks to antislavery.org.