Recipe for Slavery: Take US farm labor relations, add “guestworker” visas, and voila… Forced labor!

Federal prosecutors in Honolulu unseal indictment charging forced labor ring active in 13 states including — yet again — Florida

Multi-state operation involves guestworker recruiting giant Global Horizons in what prosecutors are calling “the largest human trafficking case in US history”

The image above is from an excellent video by Honolulu’s KITV on the news of yesterday’s indictment. You can watch the video by clicking here.

Labor Day weekend will be celebrated with a little more meaning this year by 400 farmworkers from around the country whose bosses were charged yesterday by Justice Department officials in Hawaii with “conspiracy to commit human trafficking.”

Six people in the US were charged in the case, including four employees of Global Horizons Manpower, Inc, a labor recruiting company that specializes in the overseas recruitment of “guestworkers,” foreign workers brought to the US to work in agriculture under an H2A visa for temporary employment in agriculture. Two more people based in Thailand were also indicted in the case. This is not the first time that Global Horizons has been accused of violating farm labor protection laws.

FBI Special Agent Tom Simon described the latest case to KITV News in Hawaii, where the indictment was filed:

“It’s a classic bait-and-switch what they were doing. They were telling the Thai workers one thing to lure them here. Then when they got here, their passports were taken away and they were held in forced servitude working in these farms…” read more

The KITV piece continues:

… Even though they signed contracts guaranteeing certain wages, the immigrants were often paid much less or even forced to work on farms for free, the FBI said…

‘In the old days, they used to keep slaves in place using chains and whips. These days, it’s done through economic intimidation,’ Simon said.

‘They couldn’t run away they didn’t have their documents. They were trapped. They were literally trapped,’ said Honolulu immigration attorney Clare Hanusz, who tipped off the FBI about the case two years ago. She represents 56 of the victims in the case.

She and fellow immigration attorney Melissa Vicenty sat down with an FBI agent in Honolulu to begin interviewing the victims in 2008, touching off the federal investigation, Hanusz said. ‘There were a lot of tears that were shed at these interviews. It was appalling,’ she said.

‘The guys almost always had their passports withheld. So they were very vulnerable. They were without documentation,’ she added.

‘There’s a good chance that all of us, over the past few years, have purchased fruits or vegetables or coffee that was harvested by some of these guys, there’s a very good chance,’ said Hanusz.” read more

The indictment marks the ninth prosecution for forced labor involving Florida farmworkers since 1997. Just two months ago, the eighth slavery prosecution in Florida’s fields was announced in Gainesville, Florida, involving Haitian brought into Florida to pick beans and other vegetables. At that time we wrote:

“Guestworkers”…

Also telling about this latest prosecution is the fact that it took place in the H2A, or “guestworker,” context.

Under the H2A program, agricultural employers bring foreign workers into the country under temporary visas to work exclusively on the petitioning employer’s farm. Guestworkers remain in the country only at the pleasure of their employer, they cannot change jobs, and they are obliged to return to their home country once their employer is finished with them, or face deportation. This arrangement places a tremendous amount of power over workers’ lives in the hands of their employers, and in agriculture, this has frequently resulted in cases of extreme exploitation.”

We will conclude this post as we concluded that reflection two months ago. The words, if anything, have only grown more relevant in the interim:

… News of this latest slavery prosecution serves as a timely reminder of the dangers intrinsic to any plan to expand the current agricultural guestworker program (and in the current debate over immigration reform, there are many such plans in the works).

But, more broadly, it also underscores the urgent need for broad-based labor reforms in Florida agriculture. Stories of extreme exploitation are so tragically commonplace in Florida’s fields that, rather than hear them as a call to action, we run the risk of growing inured to the abuse, each case of forced labor losing a measure of its ability to spark outrage and action.

We cannot let that happen. We must redouble our efforts to make this latest prosecution — now the eighth since 1997 — the last prosecution for forced labor in this state.

And food industry leaders — companies like Publix, Ahold, Quiznos,… Kroger, and WalMart — must also, finally, heed this call, recognize once and for all the overwhelming case for change, and commit to work with us to bring about a more modern, more humane agricultural industry in Florida.” read the post in its entirety

Have a safe Labor Day weekend.

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