Friday, July 9, 2010

Over 50 Haitians Found Enslaved in Florida's Farms

While there has been much discussion of the increased human trafficking in Haiti following the earthquake, 2010 is by no means the beginning of slavery for Haitian people. This week, court documents were unsealed which indicate over 50 Haitian nationals were trafficked to the U.S. and forced into farm work in 2008. And what the traffickers did to keep their slaves hidden from prying eyes was extraordinary, if not uncommon in modern-day slavery.

Three Haitian nationals, one of whom had been a long-time farm worker in the South Florida area, were accused of trafficking dozens of their countrymen into the U.S. to force them into farm labor. Back in Haiti, the workers were offered lucrative jobs with the U.S. guest worker program (which, incidentally, has been often criticized for its frequent use in human trafficking). The visas were false, though. Once in the U.S., workers' travel documents were confiscated, effectively confining them to their work sites. They suffered from poor food and sanitation conditions, and were made to work in fields so recently sprayed with chemicals that some of them left with permanent scars. One of the female workers even reported being raped on the job.

When the farms where the workers were enslaved were inspected by federal agents, the traffickers forced the men and women to put on drumming and dancing shows for the inspectors, threatening that anyone who didn't look happy would be deported to Haiti. They also hid workers at a nearby Walmart to fool inspectors as to the number of people working on the farm and how much they were being paid. During the rare times inspectors were able to communicate with the workers, one of the traffickers acted as interpreter, claiming that the federal inspectors gave them permission to withhold food from the workers. Eventually, however, the inspectors and local law enforcement were able to identify the horrible and dangerous working conditions, and arrested those responsible. But for too long, Haitian slaves remained hidden in plain view.

One of the most interesting elements of this case is the lengths traffickers will go to to hide their crime from the authorities. This is one of the major reason human trafficking is so hard to identify. In this case, the exploiters employed smart and creative techniques to hide their abuse from inspectors. Forcing the workers to smile and perform is especially effective, because who would suspect someone is a slave if he's smiling and playing the drums? And despite the abuses in the U.S., deportation back to Haiti was a very real threat to these workers, and when their only way to communicate with people who might help them is through their exploiter's interpretation, well, you can imagine how hopeless that must feel. The deception in this case may sound extraordinary, but these are not uncommon steps for traffickers to take to protect the financial investment in their slaves.

The Haitian workers are now getting services, including rape crisis counseling, from a number of South Florida agencies. And the three men who brought them to the U.S. face charges of forced labor and fraud.

Photo credit: treessftf