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Identifying Labor Trafficking in North Carolina

Rare data on labor practices and the migrant farmworker experience

The shadowy practice of human trafficking is attracting increased attention from government and the public, but it remains poorly understood. This is particularly true of labor trafficking—the use of force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, hold, or move someone for the purpose of labor—which may be infiltrating major industries throughout the U.S. Rigorous research is limited and has focused on primarily on sex trafficking, leaving us with unsubstantiated estimates of the scope of the problem.

Many Americans are aware that the nation’s farms rely on migrant workers from other countries to grow and harvest crops ranging from vegetables to Christmas trees. Some of these workers are undocumented immigrants and some participate in guest-worker programs, but all are vulnerable to exploitation, including physical abuse, exposure to unsafe conditions, wage fraud, and other offenses.

These people work and live as transients in what is for them a foreign country, effectively hidden in plain sight. Although local, state, and federal agencies oversee labor practices, few workers know where to turn if they need help.

In 2009, in response to a request from the National Institute of Justice, RTI researchers launched a pioneering study of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. We set out to measure whether the workers had been victims of trafficking or other abusive practices. Our study provides some of the first available scientific data on the experiences of this often-forgotten population.

Reaching Out to a Hidden Population in North Carolina’s Agricultural Communities

Several counties in North Carolina produce a large amount of labor-intensive crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, Christmas trees and other fruits and vegetables. Our study focused on those counties, where we conducted interviews with farmworkers and their advocates at farmworker festivals, labor camps, neighborhood stores, and laundromats.

Through these interviews we collected data on the demographics and immigration experience of the farmworkers, as well as labor practices they encountered. To provide a more comprehensive picture of the migrant worker experience in North Carolina, we interviewed health care workers, members of the clergy, social workers, and representatives of nonprofit associations.

We also reached out to law enforcement, with mixed results. In many counties, local sheriffs’ offices refused to participate, with some stating that labor trafficking was not a problem in their areas. The state agency responsible for overseeing the health and safety of agricultural workers also declined to participate.

The majority of law enforcement officers surveyed said they believed the high demand for farm labor gave workers some employment flexibility and made them less likely to be exploited.

Uncovering Disparities and Setting the Foundation for More Effective Protections for Workers

Our survey of migrant farmworkers uncovered many examples of unfair practices and potential trafficking. Overall, about 25 percent of the workers had experienced a situation that might constitute trafficking, such as threats of violence, threats of deportation, or restrictions on movement and the ability to freely communicate. About 39 percent reported other abuse, such as being paid less than they were promised.

The most striking result was the gap between the perceptions of law enforcement officers and the conditions reported by migrant farmworkers, advocates, and other stakeholders. Non-law-enforcement stakeholders in our survey consistently reinforced the workers’ accounts, and provided examples of pay reductions, threats of deportation, and cases of workers being forced to pay for safety equipment but discouraged from using it. Local law enforcement officers, in contrast, sometimes assumed federal agencies were protecting the workers, and that workers could change jobs if their situation was unacceptable.

Clearly, there is a disparity in the perception and understanding of law enforcement and the experience of farmworkers in North Carolina. With an estimated 150,000 migrant farmworkers in the state, the sheer number of potential victims highlights the need for a better awareness of labor trafficking. We concluded our report by recommending that law enforcement agencies take a proactive, not reactive, stance toward crime affecting the farm labor force.  

Validating Results through Additional Studies to Mobilize Anti-Trafficking Resources

While our study findings are valuable, data from a convenience sample such as this require validation with more extensive studies. Our data collection experts are exploring options for reaching a statistically representative sample of the migrant farmworker population.

Under a follow-on study, also for the National Institute of Justice, we are using a geographic sampling technique that involves traveling through an area, one census block at a time, and photographing the dwellings. Using the photos, we can identify farmworker housing and determine which dwellings to visit for interviews.

Our findings, along with the methodology behind them, have won attention in academic circles and from the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, but they have yet to take hold among policymakers. To raise the profile of labor trafficking research, our experts aim to expand our research beyond North Carolina and beyond the agricultural industry—to include restaurants, construction, landscaping, and domestic workers.

By clarifying the scope of labor trafficking in the United States, our research can inform the mobilization of resources in anti-trafficking programs, as well as criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Ultimately, our research marks the beginning of a larger effort that could pave the way for better policy and a fairer labor market in the future.