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Forced labour in the United States agricultural industry

Farm workers are some of the poorest paid and most exploited workers within the US economy. They earn on average US$10,000 a year and are excluded from many of the fundamental labour rights guaranteed to most other US workers, including the right to organise and the right to overtime pay. Farm workers also lack health insurance, sick leave, pensions, and job security. These substandard conditions are the fertile ground that gives rise to forced labour in US fields.

Though the scale of forced labour in US agribusiness is difficult to quantify because it is largely undetected, CIW estimates at any one time some 5 per cent of farm workers in the US are subjected to forced labour. In just the past 10 years there have been six federal prosecutions of Florida farm employers, affecting well over one thousand workers.

The majority of people affected are migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, with increasing rural poverty and political unrest driving their migration. Traffickers prey upon their vulnerability and desperation to find work, at times in their countries of origin, but in the majority of cases CIW has detected, once they have already crossed the border into the US.

The CIW stresses that it is not only undocumented migrants who find themselves in forced labour as legal workers and US citizens are also vulnerable to this abuse due to their need to find work, transportation, and shelter. Poverty and the powerlessness of farm workers in relation to their employers renders workers susceptible to forced labour, regardless of citizenship status. Thirty years ago, when the majority of the farm labour force was composed of US citizens, a similar percentage of workers were held against their will.

In every case documented by CIW, an element of debt bondage is involved. Traffickers promise to take workers on credit to well-paid jobs where the debt incurred for transport can be paid off quickly. In some instances, workers arrive at the place of work already thousands of dollars in debt. Subsequently they are forced to pay off their debts in conditions to which they did not agree, working in the fields for 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week. Deductions are made from their wages for transport, accommodation, food, work equipment, and supposed tax and social security payments. Weekly wages are sporadic and in many instances workers are left with no pay.

Workers are coerced in a number of ways and the violent treatment of victims can be extremely traumatic. Enslaved workers are taken to labour camps where they face brutality and a near-total loss of control over their lives. As many as 12-16 pickers may be housed in one cramped, run-down trailer, kept under constant surveillance by employers using a variety of methods, including armed guards. Some endure a constant barrage of verbal abuse along with threats of violence and death to themselves and their families back home. In the most severe cases, employers use public beatings, pistol-whippings, and shootings to make an example of those trying to escape. In addition, women in forced labour are sometimes faced with sexual harassment and even violent sexual assault.

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green tomato

A worker holds a green tomato, Florida USA.
©Coalition of Imokalee Workers

 

Those is forced labour work long strenuous hours, often 7 days a week, harvesting crops
©Shiho Fukada/ www.shihofukada.com