Many people imagine human trafficking is a problem from another time or another country – but it’s all too common in the United States, and involves products that people use every day. Recently, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor participated in a transnational, multi-year investigation that freed more than 100 trafficked workers and resulted in felony conspiracy charges against 24 defendants in South Georgia.
Our work helped expose employers who fraudulently used the H-2A visa program to smuggle agricultural workers into the U.S. from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries in order to exploit their labor and subject them to inhumane conditions. These employers made hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of workers they degraded, threatened and imprisoned.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office described how the workers were forced to dig onions with their bare hands, earning 20 cents for every bucket harvested, and threatened with guns and violence. The workers were detained in crowded, unsanitary buildings with little or no food. The indictment also accuses the conspirators of rape, kidnapping and attempted murder.
Farmworkers are critical to our supply chain and food industry, but they can be particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the United States. Agricultural workers are at high risk for abuse for many reasons, such as the migratory and seasonal nature of the work, their reliance on employer-provided housing, the physical demands of the job and typically low wages. These workers perform essential work and their protection is essential.
The litigation represents the culmination of several years of collaboration between the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, its Wage and Hour Division, and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal law enforcement agencies.
This collaborative investigation was the largest of its kind in U.S. history. It is not likely to be the last, as federal agencies have committed to join forces to dismantle trafficking rings across the country as part of the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.
Over the past three years, our Wage and Hour Division has recovered over $21.5 million in wages owed to agricultural workers and assessed over $20 million in civil money penalties against employers, including those who intentionally or repeatedly failed to comply with the law, pay workers their hard-earned wages, and ensure their housing and transportation safety. We use every available tool, including litigation, to protect workers from harassment, abuse and retaliation for asserting their rights.
Recruiters, labor contractors, growers, processors, distributors, wholesalers and retailers must help combat human trafficking by:
Enforcing binding, joint responsibility contracts throughout the supply chain;
Following the principles of the International Labor Organization’s Fair Recruitment Initiative;
Exercising strict oversight of growers and labor contractors, including routine on-site audits of payroll and working conditions; and
Joining social responsibility programs, such as the Fair Food Program.
All stakeholders share responsibility for ensuring the security of the food industry and the safety and well-being of the workers who sustain it. You can help by downloading our Bureau of International Labor Affairs’s apps to identify goods produced with forced labor and develop responsible supply chains.
Report fraud within the H-2A visa program or potential human trafficking by contacting the Wage and Hour Division online or by calling the toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). We answer calls confidentially and in more than 200 languages.
Jessica Looman is the acting administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Follow the Wage and Hour Division on Twitter at @WHD_DOL.