Part 2: Worker abuse and modern-day slavery
“Another thing that continues to happen to farm workers in this country, which is surprising for many people to hear, is actual instances of modern-day slavery, or forced labor, that have involved farm workers,” said Marc Rodrigues of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.
“These situations don’t happen in a vacuum,” Rodrigues said. “They happen along a continuum of abuses that start with your normal, everyday sweat-shop conditions, where you’re free to come and go as you choose, but you have no rights, you’re not respected, you can’t complain about your working conditions because you know you’ll lose your job, and you’re earning sub-poverty wages.
“On the other end of that spectrum, if it keeps on sliding down that slope, it tips into situations of forced labor that have happened in recent years,” Rodrigues said.
“In the past 15 years, there have been 9 different federal prosecutions for modern-day slavery involving farm workers,” said Santiago Perez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Over 1200 people have been involved in these cases. “There are numerous crew leaders and supervisors who are serving or have served some long sentences in federal prison as a result,” he said.
“One of the recent cases involved 50 or so workers who were recruited from Haiti,” Perez said. “There were all kinds of nice promises from the folks who recruited them. They were going to make 8 dollars an hour, they were going to have steady work year round, they would be given a place to live, etc.”
“The people from Haiti had to borrow a lot of money to pay for the whole process of getting their visas and coming to this country,” Perez said. They were taken to a remote area near Gainesville, Florida to pick green beans in the fields.
“Their visas and documents were confiscated by the crew leaders,” Perez said. “They were given many weeks of work at 4 dollars an hour. They weren’t allowed to communicate with the outside world, or leave the camp. They were physically beaten, and at least one of the women working in the fields was sexually assaulted by crew leaders.”
“One of the assumptions about slavery and human trafficking which a lot of people have—that it’s always undocumented immigrants—is not true,” Rodrigues said. “U.S. citizens have been caught up in these cases, too.” In 2005, a crew leader recruited workers from homeless shelters in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando. “These workers were largely African-American men—people who were born in this country, were U.S. citizens.”
Rodrigues described several methods used to keep workers against their will, including locking them in sheds, chaining them up, beating them when they tried to escape, and confiscating their shoes.
As a rationale for holding workers against their will, some crew leaders would charge inflated prices at company stores for food, cigarettes, alcohol, and crack cocaine, Rodrigues said. “By the time all these things were deducted from the workers’ pay, many of them would end up owing money instead of being paid. Then the crew leader would say, ‘You owe me money. You can’t leave until you pay me back.’
“That type of debt peonage has been present in agriculture in the South since the end of the Civil War,” Rodrigues said. “It’s one of the many ways that the planters and growers came up with to re-enslave people, to get them to work for free or for very little.”
The CIW’s approach to fighting slavery is multi-faceted, Rodrigues said. “It involves investigating suspected cases; assisting victims; in one case, sending a member of the Coalition undercover into one of these operations to work and gather evidence; training local and federal authorities about how to detect human trafficking and how to assist victims; and helping authorities to prosecute these cases when they go to trial.”
Part 1: Working conditions in Florida agriculture
Part 3: The Campaign for Fair Food