A few years ago, as I was doing my catalog Christmas shopping, I had a few questions, so I decided to call the company directly. Their customer service is excellent. As the representative was chatty, I imagine it must have been a slower evening. She asked me what I do for work outside the home. I told her including that I give presentations to educate the public on labor and sex trafficking. When I told her about agriculture trafficking, she related a couple of stories about what she thought was in her area, the mistreatment of migrant farmworkers. She asked me what she could do so, I shared information and then finished my order.

People often tell me they don’t believe human trafficking exists in their area. They want to see data. The problem is that available data is only relevant to the number of cases reported. Because of the nature of the crime, there are many more cases that are unreported. To prevent escape and reporting, victims are controlled by their owners through psychological means. To make it more challenging to seek help, they are denied their identification papers. Trusting is nearly impossible because within some agencies, including law enforcement, there is corruption. In agriculture trafficking, those who want to help are refused admittance to farms. In fear of being seen talking to outsiders, workers run away.

According to the (US) National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888), California is an example of the difficulty of assisting agriculture trafficked laborers. Often the first to recognize trafficked laborers, in June 2018, labor organizers were dealt a blow by the Supreme Court, which ruled that property rights protect farm owners from allowing organizers to meet with laborers on site. Workers in any state don’t usually have transportation to go elsewhere. Even if they did, the long, grueling workdays make it nearly impossible to do anything else. Add to that, female workers with children have no access to childcare. In many instances, they are isolated by design.

Photo Credit David Rodriguez The Salinas Californian

There are glimmers of hope as more states pass legislation for farmworkers to have the same labor rights as anyone. They are entitled to the same minimum wage and benefits accorded to workers in other industries. For example, in 2019, Munger Bros, based in California, was ordered to pay $3.5 million in back wages and penalties for human trafficking violations and other abuse issues.  Still, I talked with Bill Hall, the owner of a tea plantation in the southern United States who felt he shouldn’t have to provide any better living circumstances or benefits than from where the workers came and that knowing if laborers were trafficking victims was not up to him, but rather the crew managers.

American Classic Tea Plantation, South Carolina – Bigelow Tea

Locally produced doesn’t mean it’s slave-free. The pandemic has caused farm labor abuse issues to increase. We can all pitch in and do something. Choose carefully what we buy and know the product’s history. We can’t always see exploitation, but report it to the National Hotline if we’re suspicious of a circumstance.

Be curious about where your food comes from and how it gets to your table.