Human trafficking generally isn’t something that is on the radar on the farm, according to Paul Marik, captain of the patrol division for the Village of Pleasant Prairie Police Department. But it should be.
Some people may think human trafficking is only sex trafficking that happens in big cities or other countries, Marik said. But labor trafficking exists too, and human trafficking goes on in rural areas as well.
Labor trafficking is the category more likely to be encountered in the context of farming, Marik said. The labor feed agriculture relies on has had very little oversight, so it can be difficult to ensure that the people working on farms aren’t trafficked and want to be there.
Agriculture or animal husbandry trails only the sex trade for forced labor, Marik said. And, within agriculture, the dairy industry is at the top of the list. Hee wasn’t trying to disparage the dairy industry by pointing that out. Rather, dairy is particularly labor intensive, and where there’s a need for inexpensive, reliable labor, human trafficking is bound to occur.
Human trafficking can be divided into sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Labor trafficking can be further divided into two categories: forced labor and bonded labor. Forced labor, where victims are made to work against their will (such as under threat of violence), is less likely to be seen because it draws too much attention, Marik said.
Bonded labor, also referred to as debt bondage, is more common. In that situation, the workers are kept indebted. Workers may be charged more rent for their living quarters than they can afford. A recruiter may put a worker in debt for the worker’s transport into the country or offer to “send money home” on behalf of the worker for a percentage fee, only to keep the money for themselves. The employees’ ID documents may also be withheld to keep them from leaving.
Marik likened the scenario to the days when a coal mine owned everything in town, so all the workers’ money went straight back to the coal mine. “(Workers are) never able to dig themselves out.”
Victims of labor trafficking are likely to be adult males and people from Latin American or Caribbean nations, Marik said. Victims are often lured into trafficking with promises of a better life, only to find themselves in a situation that wasn’t what they signed up for.
Victims of labor trafficking may have a number of reasons why they won’t leave or speak up, including fear of retaliation, shame, lack of transportation, lack of trust, an inability to recognize their situation and other barriers to accessing help.
There are a number of signs that may indicate that someone is a victim of labor trafficking, according to Marik.
Workers may be subjected to physical or verbal abuse or required to work long or odd hours. They may be forced to live in poor conditions. Their paychecks may be low or negative. Their employers or recruiters may be continuously add to the debt they say the workers owe them or withhold their ID documents. Victims may also be frequently threatened with deportation.
Marik recommended farmers thoroughly vet any recruiter or agency they use to get employees. Recruiters should be willing and able to answer questions that the farmer poses, and farmers should remember that the agency works for them and should feel obligated to address their concerns.
Having a contract in place that spells out the details of the worker’s employment, such as wages and expected work tasks, can also be a good idea.
Unless a recruitment agency has been thoroughly vetted, Marik also recommended paying employees directly (as opposed to through a recruiter) and making sure employees are actually receiving their full wages. Employers may also consider hiring an interpreter to help workers set up their own checking account to ensure the workers have access to their money.
For farms where employees live on the premises, extra steps may be warranted. Having employees live on the farm isn’t bad, Marik said. But employers need to ensure that living conditions are good, rent is within the range of affordability, and employees know they have the freedom to leave.
For the employee living conditions, a good general rule is if an employer would be comfortable living there (or would be comfortable letting their child live there), then the conditions are likely in good standing.
Farm owners should also contact an attorney to learn how to protect themselves if human trafficking is occurring on the farm.
Marik recommended contacting the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888 or texting 233733 if a person suspects human trafficking may be going on at a farm. Marik said that local law enforcement agencies could also be contacted but noted that not all agencies are well-equipped to investigate human trafficking if it is something the agency has never seen before.
If someone knows the owner of a farm where they suspect human trafficking is occurring, they might choose to speak to the owner directly. But, Marik cautioned, doing that is an individual decision dependent on the totality of circumstances and the concerned individual’s relationship with the owner.
People should not do anything that would potentially jeopardize their own safety, and making an anonymous report to authorities could also be preferable to potentially losing a good friend, Marik said. A phone call removes the caller from the situation and lets authorities conduct the appropriate investigation.