With unemployment at a near historic high in the United States, could you imagine any American company bringing in foreign workers to work for them below the minimum wage and with no benefits? Most people would say no. But can you imagine those same Americans forcing foreign workers to stay here, with no pay, and constant abuse? That is actually happening in this country today.
Forced labor is a real phenomenon in the United States agriculture business. Without awareness and investigation into where our supplies come from and who businesses are hiring, the American people become unwitting complicit supporters of labor trafficking.
Monday June 13th, in anticipation of the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) held a Senate committee hearing and panel discussion to review the success and needed improvements of the law. Smith is chairman of the House congressional panel that oversees international human rights and co-chairman of the Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus. Several leaders in the fight against human trafficking were invited to testify: the main witness, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. State Department; Deborah Cundy, Vice President of Carlson Companies; Chai Ling, founder of All Girls Allowed; Nancy Rivard, President and founder of Airline Ambassadors International; Philip Kowalcyzk, President of The Body Shop; Kevin Bales, co-founder and President, Free the Slaves, and; David Abramowitz of Humanity United.
During the testimony of Ambassador CdeBaca, Smith asked a pointed question about labor trafficking in the United States. He inquired if the elimination of broker fees would help stop labor trafficking. Brokers, according the Verité Initiative, are “intermediaries who facilitate employment for migrant workers,” often in legal methods. However, research by the Verité Initiative shows that brokerage fees can “range from USD 3,000-27,000 among workers coming in legally on H-2A and H-2B guest worker visas.” In 2008, 173,103 guest workers were admitted on H-2A visas, which are for agricultural work. The main states receiving these workers were: Arkansas; California; Louisiana; Florida; Georgia; Kentucky; New York and; North Carolina. The other main industry for guest workers who came on the H-2B non-agricultural visa is Forestry. 104,618 H-2B visas were granted in 2008.
Even without trafficking, the guest worker visas do not provide “adequate protections for work, health, and housing; legalizing the payment of sub-minimum wages; and – because workers are, for practical purposes, bound to work for one or more employers – entrapping workers at specified work sites for the duration of their stay in the United States”
Ambassador CdeBaca testified that eliminating broker fees from the guest worker visa process is one of the many steps the United States government can take to stop the enslavement of foreign workers in the United States. He explained how the brokers will often confiscate the passport of the worker until they pay of their travel and brokerage debt, leading to workers essentially renting themselves out to their employers.
At this point we really have to ask ourselves how much of the food that ends up in our house have been planted and/or picked by made by forced laborers, even child slaves in the United States. 50 percent of transnational trafficking victims are children. It’s bad enough American workers are competing with foreign adult workers abroad that corporations are hiring, but now we are competing with child slaves within the United States! It’s horrific on every conceivable level.
CNN reported on June 13th that a woman in Georgia was convicted of trafficking two Nigerian girls as labor slaves in her house, where she regularly abused them. The girls were 17 and 20 and had been brought to the United States on fake US passports that the convicted women had bought for them. The girls were never paid for their years of work, forced to be dependent on their trafficker for all their basic needs, and were given spoiled food to eat.
Just last month, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it filed lawsuits against “a labor broker in California, farms in Hawaii and Washington, and a marine services company in Mississippi and Texas [that] subjected foreign workers to severe abuse and discrimination after they were trafficked into this country.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was a historic victory for human rights in America. However, is not strong enough to protect innocents from becoming victims of forced labor and abuse. With 27 million people in forced labor worldwide, Washington needs to act fast to reauthorize TVPA with more statues to prevent labor trafficking in the United States. If the moral issue is not enough to motivate Washington into action, perhaps the estimated 14,500 – 17,500 foreign nationals trafficked into the United States every year that are essentially replacing American workers in our own country, will motivate the deficit yelling Congress into action.
Smith, the prime sponsor for the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, leads his fellow Congressmen in action but we need more leaders rising to the occasion in Congress.