Slavery in the U.S.
Slavery is a reality in many parts of the world today, and the United States is no exception. There are currently an estimated 400,000 people living in slavery in the U.S. In recent years, several cases of slavery in the U.S. 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. Approximately 9 out of 10 victims of slavery in U.S. agriculture are immigrants.
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. Oftentimes, 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 illegally holding their passports, the workers feel trapped and don’t know whom to trust.
Many seasonal workers come to the U.S. through the H-2A visa program, which enables U.S. agricultural employers to bring people from other countries to work on their farms. The H-2A guest workers, who are primarily from Mexico, are tied to one employer during their time in the U.S. Under the program, the workers’ employer manages their housing, transportation, food, and immigration visas.[4, 5] This means that the H-2A workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employer.
A recent study by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante on H-2A workers found that many of the workers they interviewed experienced signs of labor trafficking. Of those interviewed, 32% said they did not feel free to quit their jobs. Additionally, 34% of workers said they experienced restrictions on their movement, such as being banned from leaving the worksite or employer-provided housing.
It is no wonder that the H-2A program is so fraught with instances of slavery, given that its structure has barely changed from the previous bracero program of the 1960s: a program that the government official in charge called “legalized slavery.”
The circumstances described below directly constitute “slavery” as defined by the U.S. 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 organization Verité has documented the conditions that these immigrant workers endure hidden from public view. The following accounts are based on interviews and research conducted by Verité.
Before their work even began, the workers were deeply in debt for recruitment fees and the costs associated with transportation. Upon arrival, the workers’ passports and visas were taken and held for the duration of their 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 10 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, more than 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 per month, the average herder received only $800 per month. After deductions were taken for food and transportation, the workers ended up making as little as $600 per 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 workers must pay their own way home. This is an additional financial strain on workers who were not reimbursed for their initial trip to the United States. Despite the requirement that employers cover the full cost of transportation to the U.S., workers are often forced to absorb these expenses.
Reflecting on his experience in the U.S., one worker told Verité: “We thought the experience of working on a ranch in the U.S. would be marvelous. But it turns out that the conditions there were much worse than our life in Chile.”
Since the Verité accounts were published, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has released new regulations for employing guest workers as herders. While employers used to be allowed to pay herders as little as $750 per month to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they are now required to pay herders at least $7.25 per hour for an estimated 48-hour work week.[8, 9] However, the $7.25-per-hour wage is by no means a living wage and is even lower than the DOL originally proposed due to pressure from ranchers. Given the lack of regulation and the frequency of labor law abuse across the H-2A program, workers will continue to be overworked and experience wage theft under these new rules.
The new regulations also include moderate requirements that workers have access to drinking water and the ability to make emergency calls. The fact that legislation needed to be passed to require employers to provide drinking water and emergency calling access—rights that should be guaranteed to every worker—further reveals the structurally exploitative nature of the H-2A program.
Egg Farm Workers
Some of the people living in slavery in the U.S. are children and teenagers. In Ohio, four people were convicted of running a trafficking operation that brought undocumented Guatemalan teenagers as young as 14 years old into the country to work on egg farms.[10, 11] The families of these young people were promised that their children would be protected and would receive a good education while in the U.S.
The teenage workers were instead forced to spend 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, on tasks such as cutting off hens’ beaks and loading and unloading chicken crates. The workers’ traffickers took the money they made at the egg farms. They were housed in unsafe, isolated trailers, sometimes without heat during the winter. According to charges filed against the traffickers, if the workers refused to cooperate, they were threatened with their lives.
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.[12, 13] 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.[12, 14]
U.S. attorney Doug Molloy called the conditions “slavery, plain and simple.”
In addition to charges of physical assault and forced labor, the employers pleaded guilty to forging documents and identity theft as well as deducting the costs of showers from the workers’ wages. All six defendants were successfully prosecuted in this case, which is just one of eight slavery cases brought to trial in Florida since 1997.
Global Horizons Case
In September of 2010, the Beverly Hills labor recruiting firm Global Horizons 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 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 up working in conditions of slavery on farms across the country.
Pea and Bean Workers
Another case of slavery in the United States involved more than 100 Haitian workers laboring in the pea and bean fields of southern Florida. The people 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.
Three defendants were charged with conspiring to commit forced labor and visa fraud.[17, 18] 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.”[17, 18] 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.
Despite the evidence of the workers’ abuse, all of the charges against the defendants were ultimately dropped. Federal prosecutors requested that the charges be dropped without giving an explanation, choosing to protect the interests of the growers and recruiters instead of protecting the people who were enslaved.
Wauchula Farm Workers
Yet another case of slavery occured on a farm in Wauchula, Florida, where H-2A workers harvested cranberries, blackberries, corn, and onions. One worker from Oaxaca, Mexico, described the terrible housing conditions: “I lived in a chicken pen made out of thin metal material that was in bad shape, and it had bunk beds with thirty to forty other people. Anyone was able to enter.” He was charged $1,000 per month to live there while only making $300–$400 per week for more than 80 hours of work. On top of that, the employers did not reimburse him for any of his travel expenses or recruitment fees, which amounted to more than $2,000.
The farm workers were verbally and emotionally abused by their supervisor while working in the fields. They were also forced to work every day without any breaks. When some of the workers tried to leave the farm, the supervisor retaliated by taking away their passports. The workers were only able to leave after the tragic death of one of their co-workers, who was not given access to drinking water while cutting corn and fell ill from the heat.
Knowledge Is Power
The reality is that slavery still occurs in the United States. Far from the public eye, immigrant workers across the country endure mental and physical abuse at the hands of their employers. Organizations like the CIW are aiming to address the problem by forming anti-slavery programs. The CIW’s Anti-Slavery Program has aided in the investigation and prosecution of multiple slavery operations. The CIW’s Fair Food Program is also working to eliminate slavery through worker education and a zero-tolerance policy against forced labor within participating farms. The U.S. Department of Labor, however, is largely failing to protect 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.
What You Can Do
- Buy ethically-made products: Support the equality of all beings by not only choosing a vegan lifestyle, but also by purchasing products that are free of slavery and free from the suffering of both humans and non-human animals. If you have access to healthy foods, check the list of participating farms in the Fair Food Program to find produce grown without the use of slavery.
- Lend your voice: Support worker-led movements for corporate and political change. All workers deserve respect, living wages, and good working conditions.
*Please note: Although Food Empowerment Project is linking to other organizations, we do not necessarily endorse the entire content of their website or mission.
 “United States.” The Global Slavery Index, Walk Free Foundation, 2018, https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/country-studies/united-states/#:~:text=NurPhoto%2FGetty%20Images-,Prevalence,every%20thousand%20in%20the%20country. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 “Human Trafficking.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 The Typology of Modern Slavery: Defining Sex and Labor Trafficking in the United States. The Polaris Project, Mar. 2017, https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Polaris-Typology-of-Modern-Slavery-1.pdf. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program. Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., Apr. 2020, https://cdmigrante.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Ripe-for-Reform.pdf. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 Morales, Maricela. “A Local Victory for Farmworker Safety During COVID-19.” Received by lauren Ornelas, 17 Sep. 2020.
 “What Is Human Trafficking?” United States Department of Justice, https://www.justice.gov/humantrafficking/what-is-human-trafficking. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Immigrant Workers in U.S. Agriculture: The Role of Labor Brokers in Vulnerability to Forced Labor. Verité, Inc., June 2010, http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2174&context=globaldocs. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 “New H-2A Guestworker Program Rule on Sheepherders Increases Wages But Problems Remain.” Farmworker Justice, 2015, https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/news-article/new-h-2a-guestworker-program-rule-on-sheepherders-increases-wages-but-problems-remain/. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 H-2A Final Rule: Range Herding or Production of Livestock in the United States. United States Department of Labor (DOL), https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ETA/oflc/pdfs/herder_faq_round1.pdf. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 Zachariah, Holly. “Four Accused of Trafficking Slave Labor at Egg Farms.” The Columbus Dispatch, 3 July 2015, https://www.dispatch.com/article/20150703/news/307039818. Accessed 16 Sep. 2020.
 “Labor Trafficker Sentenced for Encouraging the Illegal Entry of Guatemalan Nationals, Including Unaccompanied minors, Into the United States.” United States Department of Justice, 19 June 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndoh/pr/labor-trafficker-sentenced-encouraging-illegal-entry-guatemalan-nationals-including#:~:text=Herdman%2C%20U.S.%20Attorney%20for%20the,gain%20on%20September%2017%2C%202018. Press release. Accessed 16 Sept. 2020.
 Gillespie, Pat. “Sixth Immokalee Slavery Case Suspect Arrested – Group Accused of Keeping, Beating, Stealing from Immokalee Laborers.” The News Press, 18 Jan. 2008, https://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/must-read/sixth-immokalee-slavery-case-suspect-arrested-the-news-press. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Slavery in the Fields and the Food We Eat. Coalition of Immokalee Workers, http://www.ciw-online.org/Resources/tools/general/10Slavery%20in%20the%20Fields.pdf. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Vanden Heuvel, Katrina. “The Nation: Florida’s Modern Slavery…The Museum.” NPR, The Nation, 29 Mar. 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125296794. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Asbed, Greg and Steve Hitov. Preventing Forced Labor In Corporate Supply Chains: The Fair Food Program and Worker-Driven Social Responsibility. Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 14 July 2017, http://ciw-online.org/wp-content/uploads/HitovAsbedArticle_AuthorCopy.pdf. Accessed 14 Sept. 2020.
 Watanabe, Tessa. “Federal Grand Jury Indicts Associates of Beverly Hills Firm in Human-Trafficking Case.” Los Angeles Times, 4 Sept. 2010, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0904-human-trafficking-20100904,0,708204.story. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 Voyles, Karen. “Three Charged with Human Trafficking on Alachua County Farms.” The Gainesville Sun, 6 July 2010, https://www.gainesville.com/article/LK/20100706/News/604155166/GS. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 United States District Court, Northern District Of Florida Gainesville Division. United States of America vs. Ceneus, Bontemps, and Edouard, 19 Oct. 2010, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2177327/carline-hot-pickers-superceding-indictment.pdf. Accessed 15 Sept. 2020.
 Voyles, Karen. “Charges Dropped in Human Trafficking Case.” The Gainesville Sun, 25 Jan. 2012, https://www.gainesville.com/article/LK/20120125/News/604131382/GS. Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.
 “Anti-Slavery Program.” Coalition of Immokalee Workers, http://ciw-online.org/slavery/. Accessed 16. Sept. 2020.