By Caitlin Ryland, Staff Attorney
Legal Aid of North Carolina Farmworker Unit
“As we fight to eliminate trafficking, we draw strength from the courage and resolve of generations past -- and in the triumphs of the great abolitionists that came before us, we see the promise of our Nation: that even in the face of impossible odds, those who love their country can change it.” - President Barack Obama (December 31, 2014)
President Obama recently proclaimed January 2015 to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In his proclamation, President Obama issued a call to arms to Americans to recommit to the abolishment of this heinous crime. In recent years, North Carolina has made great strides in the battle against trafficking. However, the migrant farmworkers that travel to North Carolina each year to toil in our fields remain largely forgotten in these efforts and are among those most acutely at risk.
Human traffickers target society’s most vulnerable, often invisible, populations. They prey on those that have limited connections with the community, that are unaware of, fear, or mistrust available services and agencies, that have an urgent need to leave an exploitative situation, or that otherwise have limited opportunities available to them. In some instances, traffickers use physical means of controlling a victim through restraints, beatings, or by confinement. However, sometimes physical force is not needed. Modern day traffickers also use means of psychological coercion to control their victim including isolation, threats of shame or violence towards them or loved ones, or the manipulation of debt, linguistic or cultural barriers, addiction, or a mental or physical impairment.
Despite the headway that North Carolina has made towards the eradication of trafficking, circumstances remain that make migrant farmworkers particularly vulnerable to the most severe forms of exploitation. Agricultural employers still control many aspects of migrant workers’ lives including their access to transportation, food, medical care, banking, and communication with the outside world, and, thus, their day-to-day ability to meet their own basic human needs. Farm labor camps in our state are located in geographically isolated areas commonly set back from the public road and prone to sporadic or nonexistent cellular phone coverage. Traffickers have exploited these conditions to limit victims' freedom by, for example, confiscating victims' identification documents, keeping victims' intentionally unaware of their whereabouts as they migrate, and controlling victims' communications with or isolating them from the public by impeding visits from medical and legal services, religious workers, and educators. You can see a short video documenting employers obstructing camp visits here.
Most migrant workers in North Carolina are immigrants to the U.S. who travel here from other southern states, and may continue to travel north as various crops mature for harvest. Also, guestworkers with temporary agricultural "H2A" visas travel to our state primarily from Mexico and Central America, but guestworkers have travelled from as far as Thailand, South Africa and Indonesia to harvest our crops. Usually, the foreign workers do not speak English and have low levels of literacy in their own languages. They are often unfamiliar with local medical clinics, churches, emergency services such as 911, resources for trafficked or abused persons, and other services. Many who work under the supervision of a crewleader do not know the name of the grower that they are working for or the address of the labor camp where they reside. Currently, there is no requirement for camps to have a working telephone in workers' barracks nor is there a requirement that the owner or operator of the camp post emergency information, such as 911, information about local health clinics, or information regarding human trafficking or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Under North Carolina common law, migrant farmworkers who reside in employer owned or controlled housing have the right to receive visitors of their choosing during non-work hours for lawful proposes. This right is spelled out statutorily in other states. In practice, migrants' right to receive visitors is increasingly violated by employers trying to control workers. Many labor camp owners post menacing "no trespassing" or "no visitors" signs to deter visitors or service providers from visiting workers living in camps. Growers and crewleaders regularly threaten service providers with arrest for criminal trespass if they try to visit workers in the camp, and then use that threat as leverage to demand to know the worker’s name and subject matter of a visit. Where crewleaders are engaged in trafficking of farmworkers at a camp, not only is the grower violating the workers' right to receive visitors and houses those workers at a facility owned or controlled by a grower, the grower could be furthering a trafficking scheme by controlling workers' communications with family or support services and/or isolating them from any contact with visiting clergy, medical and legal professionals, and patrolling area law enforcement.
If a victim of trafficking is able to escape his/her situation, there is help. Along with a network of member organizations and agencies throughout the state called the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking ("NCCAHT"), Legal Aid of NC assists victims of trafficking in our state, including farmworker victims of trafficking. Please make these resources known and available to those that may need this help, particularly to those that are new to North Carolina.