growing problem of agricultural labor trafficking in Illinois | Latino voices | Chicago News
Agriculture in Illinois is big business as one of America’s largest producers of soybeans, corn, and pork. the Illinois Agricultural Bureau estimates that the Illinois agricultural industry and related activities contribute more than $ 50 billion to the state’s economy. But the nature of farm work and the structure of our nation’s migrant labor program make the people who work long hours on more than 72,000 Illinois farms vulnerable to abuse and the COVID-19 pandemic. has only exacerbated an already alarming situation.
According to a data analysis from the US National Human Trafficking Hotline by the Polaris Group, last year saw a more than 70% increase in reports of agricultural labor trafficking. Miguel Keberlein Gutierrez, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services says from a legal perspective, what rises in human trafficking versus labor abuse can be difficult to pin down.
“There is really a whole spectrum of what labor abuse is which, at the end of the day, is labor trafficking,” said Keberlein Gutierrez. “It’s really when there is force, fraud or coercion that keeps a person essentially under contract with an employer in one way or another. And we certainly see a lot of it in the farming community.
In November, the Legal Aid Society received a $ 2 million grant to fund and expand the legal support they provide to farm workers in central and northern Illinois.
Maggie Rivera, President and CEO of the Illinois Migrant Council, says it can also be difficult to pinpoint what could be a trafficking situation even when it is present on farms.
“One way would be if we are talking to an individual and their responses appear to have been repeated, or if they have no eye contact and don’t want to talk to us on their own,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s organization provides support and training to migrant farm workers in Illinois. As part of its work, IMC also educates workers about their rights.
“When we start the season, we normally had the opportunity to build some kind of relationship with the producers and go to the farms and provide the trainings that we come up with,” Rivera said. “This is when we also bring the information about their labor rights and work with other state entities that can also partner with us to bring them that information.”
IMC also trains outreach workers to look for signs of abuse and trafficking.
“Signs of physical violence or maybe poor living conditions or maybe sometimes when we demand that they provide us with some kind of document, they tell us they don’t have it because their employer is keeping it. for them, ”Rivera said. “Those kind of little signs would be the ones we’re looking for.”
Keberlein Gutierrez also says the nature of farm work can make it difficult to find reliable statistics on the extent of the problem.
“Due to the type of work and the migratory workforce and due to changing markets and things, you don’t always even know how many people are in the migrant agricultural workflow,” he said. said Keberlein Gutierrez. “So when it comes to traffic, there are people who can be in situations where their traffic is for a while, then they’re not in that traffic situation anymore, and then they come back in. But we know that within the farming community there is a high percentage of people who, when asked about situations, identified a situation that would lead to trafficking.
Keberlein Gutierrez says labor recruiting companies are a way for large agricultural conglomerates to mask traffic.
“They bring in a significant workforce with a recruiter or a recruiting company and that recruiting company has some weight in the promises they make to people and how they make them work,” Keberlein said. “We find that people have been told ‘you’re going to make so much money if you come here and do that’ and then when they get here they can get a certain amount of money, but they’re detained in a situation. where they cannot freely or believe they can leave freely because of the debt to the recruiter.
He also says the H2A visa program has serious flaws that make workers vulnerable to trafficking.
“They offer these work visas to people in different countries and the recruiter to go there. So the upstream recruiter promises certain things and often without anyone knowing, he basically bribes people for those jobs, ”Keberlein explains. “A lot of people prepay for visas and that money is held against them while they do the job and when they get here they may not even know where they are geographically somehow, they are very isolated. , they do not have access to community resources or agencies and many employers prohibit [community organizations] trying to reach workers and share information with them.
But, according to Keberlein Gutierrez, just providing information early in the process to workers applying for visas could make a big difference in what they can expect from their U.S. employers.
“When workers go through the consular process to obtain the visa, they are not informed of where they are going and who they can contact if there is a problem,” says Keberlein Gutierrez. “And that, I think, would certainly alleviate a lot of the isolation issues and who they can talk to if they feel like they’re in danger.”