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Green apples. Photo by Tapir Girl.

Green apples. Photo by Tapir Girl.


Human Trafficking: Farm Labor, Forced Labor?

Sara Lerner

Farm workers rights advocates say regulations in the agriculture industry leave an open window for human trafficking crimes to slip through. We'll learn how one man found himself in Washington trapped, penniless, in debt, and fearing for his family's safety.


This morning we continue our series on human trafficking in Washington State. Earlier we heard from victim's advocate Kathleen Morris who says she's seen more labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking.

Morris: "We see construction workers, restaurant workers, domestic workers. We see people in agricultural work."

Today, we take a look at Washington state agriculture: an area where some say industry regulations leave an open window for human trafficking crimes to slip through.

Washington state is home to 39,000 farms. We produce more apples here than anywhere in the U.S. and more cherries and hops, as well. And migrant workers find opportunities here.

Nicholson: "A Mexican national can earn six times more working here in the United States than they can in Mexico."

Erik Nicholson is the National Vice President of the United Farm Workers (UFW). He works on guest worker program issues. He's based in Tacoma and also oversees operations in Washington and Oregon. He says workers are willing to pay to get set up with a job.

Nicholson: "A recruiter comes into communities and says I can get you a visa, what we call a non–immigrant visa, H–2A, guest worker visa. But it's gonna cost you. You gotta pony up $3,000 – $5,000. That's increasingly, well, not increasing, that's rampant right now in Mexico. And workers are trying to figure out ways to come up with that money."

They'll borrow from friends, family; they'll even take out mortgages on their homes in order to pay the fees.

Nicholson: "But what generally happens is the recruiter will offer some type of scheme. That they have access to a loan shark, they'll front a part of the money but usually with some implicit or explicit threat of violence. You better show up, you better be a good worker. And if you're not, all bets are off. And by the way, I know you're from Tacoma. I know where your family lives and something ugly could happen to your family if you get uppity."

It's illegal for a U.S. employer to provide guest work to someone who paid a recruitment fee to get the job. But sometimes the recruiters and employers are one and the same.

Isley: "The first thing that happened was the employer confiscated his passport and travel documents."

Meet immigration attorney Lori Isley. She's explaining what an employer did to her client when he arrived here under the H–2A program. Without documents, the man couldn't leave or get around on his own. And things got worse from there.

Isley: "There was one circumstance in which there was no food. The worker was very afraid to go out because there had been these threats: If you go out in an unsupervised way, you will be sent home."

Home, deep in debt, to lenders who threaten with violence. The man had paid $11,000 in recruitment fees.

Isley works for Columbia Legal Services in Yakima. She says her client mortgaged his home to pay the recruiters. They promised three years of work in which the man could earn triple the initial $11,000. He arrived in Washington State, worked in a rural area for a few months and made $1500 and then, no more work. Next, the employers held him under 24–hour guard.

Isley: "The worker became very concerned about his situation. And actually, the worker called the only people really he had contact with and those people drove several hours to rescue him from that situation."

The man eventually ended up getting connected to Isley. She helped him with the application and verification process to receive a T visa which is awarded only to proven human trafficking victims. Isley says she's nervous about revealing identifiable information about this man, or his family or the people who helped him. She says it's too dangerous.

Lerner: "How is it that he's not safe? I mean does it mean that means somebody could go after his family?"

Isley: "Yes."

Lerner: "So, that really happens?"

Isley: "Certainly workers are threatened in that manner and whether those threats would be executed on is very hard to say but given the circumstances in which the workers are held I think it's a legitimate fear on their part."

Workers rights advocates say problems arise when local farmers are able to distance themselves from workers and their potentially questionable financial or legal status. That's because, sometimes, farmers hire labor contractors who hire recruiters who hire workers.

Mike Gempler is Executive Director of the Washington Grower's League. His take on the likelihood of human trafficking in agriculture here is another story. He says only a tiny one to two percent of Washington farmers even use labor contractors. The rest pay their employees directly. And rules are in place to make sure the contractors are reputable.

Gempler: "When they hire a farm labor contractor they darn better well make sure that that contractor has a state and federal license and that it's current, it's on file with the Department of Labor and Industries and the U.S. Department of Labor, that they put up the required bond. Anybody who jumps through those hoops, pretty good chance they're legit."

And as for recruitment fees, Gempler agrees they are a problem, but he says he doesn't know how high they are and, more importantly. He says they're charged in workers' home countries, never here. And that makes them tough to regulate.

Gempler is in his office in Yakima where a Friend of Housing award from the state hangs on the wall among dozens of how–to VHS videos on things like tractor safety, protecting against skin cancer. Gempler says what happened to Isley's client is absolutely rare. He only knows of one instance of this type of abuse.

In 2004 and 2005, the California–based farm labor contractor Global Horizons brought about 175 workers here from Thailand. In 2006, Washington state revoked the company's license for violating wage and labor laws. Accusations include withholding payment, failing to provide adequate living conditions, and even failing to feed the workers properly. Gempler says Global Horizons hurt the reputation of the entire industry undeservingly.

Gempler: "It made things rough for us. As soon as you say the word, say the word H–2A, people think oh, global! And Thai workers! And it happened once. I don't know of it happening any other place in Washington state."

Nicholson: "I would be stunned if there were not cases actually out there right now in agriculture of human trafficking."

Again, the UFW's Erik Nicholson.

Nicholson: "How many? It would be purely speculative on my part um but I'd be stunned if those cases do not exist. Everything indicates to me that conditions are absolutely ripe for that to be occurring right now."

Still, as far as proven human trafficking cases in agriculture in central or eastern Washington, there aren't many. In fact, after extensive research, I only found two, one being Isley's client.

Kathleen Morris is one of only a handful of people who work full–time on human trafficking issues in Washington state. She's the program manager for the Washington Anti–Trafficking Response Network, or WARN. She's seen cases in agriculture in western Washington, but not in the rest of the state.

Morris: "That's the thing. Our unfortunately our time doing, building awareness in Eastern Washington and Central Washington was so short and our funding was cut and we lost that ability to reach out there on a regular basis. So, we haven't found those cases yet."

Morris says human trafficking is a hidden crime. Victims might not know what their rights are or that they have access to help– and they're afraid.

Morris: "I've gotten calls from community–based service providers in Central Washington who had a case, had a case sitting in front of them, explained to the people what the process was, what the resources were, what their options were, and the people chose not to come forward, so that fear can't be discounted."

Morris hopes that by educating the public on human trafficking, the message will spread to victims, as well. That's why she's thrilled she received a grant last year to fund two new full–time human trafficking outreach staffers: one in Spokane and one in Yakima.

It's a hot day in Yakima, and Morris is in Griscelda Guzman's car– that's her new outreach coordinator. They're headed out to lunch and just getting to know each other.

Morris: "I got stuck in the pass and it took like eight hours to drive back and I've never gotten over it. Ha ha!"

Guzman: "I like it, the Stevens Pass better than Snoqualmie Pass."

Later, they go back to Guzman's office. Morris gives her an overall orientation on human trafficking: teaching everything from what it is to how to build an anti–trafficking coalition.

Morris: "Start with the people you're already comfortable with. You know them. You know. And start going, meeting with a few people here and there, doing presentations here and there, and then you can slowly start to step out of your comfort zone and go into people that you don't know and you're not sure what their reactions are gonna be."

It's Guzman's first week on the job and she's pretty quiet.

Morris: "Does that all make sense? I feel like we're, are we going all over the place or are we good?"

Guzman: "No, it's fine."

Morris: "I tend to go off on tangents."

After two days of intensive training, Morris returns to Seattle and Guzman is ready to roll.

A month later, she's in her office and she exudes more confidence than she did those first days on the job. She's already met new people and scheduled presentations. Pamphlets surround her with slogans like 'look beneath the surface' and 'human trafficking is modern–day slavery.'

Guzman: "I think it's exciting because no one else is doing my job. Well, at least here in central Washington. And it's something fairly new. Some people know about it, some don't. So I can say, whoa, I can explain a little bit more about what's human trafficking, because you know I've talked to some people they just have no clue about human trafficking."

Back in Seattle, Kathleen Morris is feeling hopeful.

Morris: "In the past six months we've seen more Spanish–speaking clients or victims come forward. And I don't think it's because suddenly there are more Spanish–speaking victims. I think it's because the message is getting to the community that they have rights here and what's happening to them is not okay. So, it's gonna continue. It's just a matter of getting the word out. We're doing the best we can."

In the end, it's clear farmers aren't enslaving their workers on a massive scale across Washington state. But it's also clear human trafficking is a reality in agriculture here, just as in construction, manufacturing, in nail salons or, potentially, any business.

I'm Sara Lerner for KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

This is part three in a four–part series on "Human Trafficking in Washington State."