farm workers
Tomato pickers are paid by the piece, averaging 50 cents for every 32 pounds picked, according to CIW. CIW photo by Scott Robertson

There is an invisible cost of the food that graces Americans’ tables. Much of it has been picked by farm workers who are at risk of being victims of human trafficking. 

“Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation,” said Hilary Chester, associate director of anti-trafficking services for the Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The largest group is agricultural workers.” 

Fight for fairness

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a community-based organization founded in 1993 primarily of immigrants working in agricultural jobs throughout Florida, particularly tomato pickers. In 2001, it began a Campaign for Fair Food to urge restaurants and retailers to use their purchasing might to promote better wages and safer, more humane conditions for workers. 

Trader Joe’s is the most recent retailer to join in solidarity with farm labor justice, having signed the CIW’s Fair Food Agreement on Feb. 9. The agreement won the kudos of Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., who called it “a step forward in the effort to ensure that the rights and dignity of Florida farm workers is recognized.” 

“We’re really seeing this unprecedented transformation,” said Lucas Benitez, CIW founder and director, “where farm workers, growers and some retailers are working together to eliminate and actually prevent human trafficking and to create an industry where farm workers are treated fairly and can work with dignity.” 

National problem

Violations of farm workers’ rights are not limited to Florida’s tomato fields. Pending before the courts is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s case against Global Horizons Inc., involving more than 200 Thai men who were allegedly enticed into coming to Washington state and Hawaii with the promise of temporary visas allowing them to work legally in high-paying agricultural jobs. Once here, their passports were confiscated, deportation was threatened and the men were compelled to live and work under subhuman conditions, the suit claims. 

Bridgette Carr, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor who runs a human trafficking legal clinic, pointed out misperceptions people have about trafficking. 

“Human trafficking has led people to believe that it means only people who have crossed an international border without permission, but that’s not true,” Carr told OSV. “I have clients who are U.S. citizens and are victims of human trafficking.” 

“Two things have to happen for trafficking to succeed,” she said. “A trafficker has to decide to exploit someone and we have to be willing to look the other way. If you’re able to purchase things at a ridiculously low price, where is the savings coming from? Rent isn’t free, materials aren’t free, and so it’s the labor — the high cost of low prices.” 

Catholic response

Luis Bazan, associate director for global social justice at the University of San Francisco, told OSV the school provides hands-on learning for students on the farm workers’ plight. 

“We partner with community-based organizations that are willing to show us the reality and provide opportunities for students to be in the presence of the marginalized and exploited. We help serve food to farm workers, we share a meal and they share their stories.” 

It was stories that motivated Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Susan Francois to work with the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center, a group of 16 religious communities in Seattle, Wash., that focuses on education in parishes and advocacy from the grass roots. 

“It was the resiliency of the human spirit in two women who had been rescued that has made me want to focus on this work,” she said. “They had such a love for life and hope for the future that they wanted to do everything they could to rebuild their lives and contribute to the world. Human trafficking is a dehumanizing experience to break a person down to control them. But God created human creatures of such dignity that there’s always a spark of the human spirit and they can’t take that away.” 

Ongoing efforts

The U.S. bishops’ efforts in fighting human trafficking were hampered last year when the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services lost a contract to provide services to survivors because it would not offer abortion or contraceptive services. 

Peter Routsis-Arroyo, president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Venice, told OSV that his organization is feeling the loss of the funding, but is still carrying on its work with victims. 

“We’re working with victims — on call 24/7 — taking them from the police and bringing them into shelter and getting them everything they need. Funding from the USCCB helped us provide staff and assistance to clients, but since the loss of the contract, we don’t have resources and we’re working with parishes for in-kind donations. We serviced 57 individuals and families in 2011,” he said. “The loss of funding is a big blow, but we’re committed to making sure we continue to educate and provide services.” 

Jamie Welch, MRS education and outreach coordinator, said that as a result of a pilot project by the Florida Catholic Conference, a human trafficking tool kit has been developed for parishes. 

“We’re glad to see parishes are educated on the issue and the more educated, the more victims are identified and seek services,” she said. “The end of the contract is not going to deter us from doing this work, it’s who we are.” 

Laura Dodson writes from Florida.