It’s a harsh reality NOT just of yesterday’s world, but today’s too.
Modern day slavery is a crime of opportunity that permeates vulnerable peoples and communities. In 2016, it was estimated that out of the 40.3 million people living in modern slavery, 24.9 million were in forced labor. The world statistics are astoundingly depressing, more so in that the majority of the victims are children. And, no: the United States is not exempt from this crime, with an estimate number of 57,700 living in modern slavery.
Unfortunately, either because the statistics are minimal compared to global numbers or because regional news coverage is not as prevalent as is international coverage – perhaps one feeds into the other – most people are shocked to hear about modern day slavery in the U.S. More regrettably still, if attention is given to the subject it too often becomes a blame game of ‘well, why don’t you just leave that job?’ – thereby placing culpability on the worker. However, looking closely at circumstances surrounding many of these cases there are risk factors and signs that make particular industries and individuals prime territory for forced labor.
Agriculture is one of the major industries in which victims of modern slavery are found. Immigrant farmworkers are often highly vulnerable to exploitation by farm labor contractors and farm owners due to their transience, economic status, language differences, and more. Under the guise of steady work, good wages, and provided housing employers can recruit workers under false pretenses. Once workers have been isolated or secluded on farms in remote areas they are then forced to work with the threat of deportation or physical violence hanging over their heads. Meanwhile, with no money, no one to trust, and their documentation confiscated, workers are now enslaved and at the mercy of their captors.
It’s not only immigrant farmworkers; there are domestic workers falling victim to forced labor as well due to the nature of farm work. And, this is not just something that is occurring on an individual basis or with unaccompanied youth. There have been cases where farm labor contractors actively recruited groups of workers from particular countries for the sole purpose of enslaving them as farmworkers once in the U.S. or even went so far as to utilize the H2A guest worker program as a recruiting tool.
The terms ‘modern day slavery’, ‘human trafficking’, and ‘slave conditions’ are often intertwined confusing things even further, but education is key in not only understanding that they are different, but that they can be gateways between one to the other. Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell what’s really happening even if you stumble upon a forced labor situation; many victims have been conditioned to believe that what they are enduring is the norm.
What can we do?
Educate ourselves. Stop turning a blind-eye to things we hear and see. Question circumstances which don’t seem right.
Even more importantly to our daily lives, as consumers we play a huge role in forced labor whether we’d like to believe it or not. The food supply chain is run on demand, and when we continually demand that produce be cheaper, those price cuts are coming from somewhere. Hint: it’s usually from the bottom. Finally, as a country we need to face some cold hard facts that many inadequacies and exploitative situations stem from a set of laws designed to exclude those of us who are different – feeding into America’s legacy of racism. Until we can acknowledge and begin to fundamentally change that system of policies, we will continue to breed environments ripe for abuse like modern day slavery in the fields.