Ignorance should not be bliss. But – as Univision’s recent report on conditions at a major U.S. potato farm makes clear – when it comes to human trafficking, a simple “oops, didn’t know,” seems to be enough to get business owners entirely off the hook for horrific abuses going on under their noses.
If we truly want to end the epidemic of labor trafficking in the United States, that has to change. It is time to start holding business owners accountable for human trafficking on their watch.
And it is long past time to revamp the visa program that, as currently structured, has led to a near epidemic of trafficking in America’s farms and fields at a moment when agriculture workers from overseas have never been more important to the U.S. economy.
The multimedia Univision report, Potato Slaves, tells the story of workers who came to this country legally on visas called H-2As to work on a potato farm in Texas. These visas were created because the agriculture industry was not able to find enough workers already in the United States who would take these difficult and usually low-paying jobs.
Under the terms of the visas, workers are only legally in the United States while they are employed by the business that sponsors the visa. This situation is a trafficker’s dream. The men and women who come from Mexico and other countries to work these jobs can be abused – physically, verbally, financially – and they have no recourse to complain. Their supervisors need only threaten to call “immigration” to coerce them into working in inhumane or dangerous conditions, for little or no money. This is labor trafficking, and it is, unfortunately, hardly an anomaly.
Data from the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline shows this kind of scenario plays out time and again, around the country. It is long past time to reexamine and revamp this program to allow some degree of visa portability. Until we do, workers will continue to be abused with impunity. But that is just the beginning of the change we need.
In the Texas potato farm case, the man who recruited and supervised the workers was eventually charged – with fraud and other lesser crimes – not with human trafficking, despite conditions that meet the legal benchmark for labor trafficking. That’s just one of the reasons it’s hard to claim that justice, or anything like it, was served in this case. The only person held accountable was essentially a middleman, likely a former laborer himself, who worked his way up the chain and may well have been subjected to similar abuses at some earlier point.
The person who profited most from the availability of cheap labor is the actual owner of the potato farm. As the story makes clear, the owner of the farm confessed to having heard about the abuses taking place over months on his property, for his benefit. He did nothing to stop it, benefitted from the labor, and yet he received no punishment.
Such willful blindness is undoubtedly unethical. If we want to stop labor trafficking in the farms and fields around this country, it must also become illegal.