When farmworkers and advocates see trafficking but law enforcement does not: challenges in identifying labor trafficking in North Carolina
This article reports on the perceptions and experiences with labor trafficking of farmworkers, stakeholders, and law enforcement representatives in North Carolina. We found a sizeable number of farmworkers who had experienced labor trafficking violations, albeit with a convenience sample; and community agencies reported stories of labor trafficking victimization. However, most of the state and local law enforcement agencies that we attempted to contact simply ignored our requests for information about labor trafficking or reported no evidence of such victimization. Notwithstanding the sample limitations, we found a general lack of awareness of agricultural labor trafficking problems among law enforcement officials in our surveyed jurisdictions. We question whether our current law enforcement system will ever be in a position to effectively enforce the anti-labor-trafficking law; and suggest an alternative specialized mechanism be established.
Much of the current discourse on human trafficking has been centered on the sexual exploitation of women and children. However, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that nearly 10 million people are forced to work by private agents and enterprises worldwide . Of these, the ILO estimates that the majority (7.8 million) are in forced labor, as opposed to being commercially sexually exploited (1.4 million) with the most victims in China, India and South Asia . It is suspected that labor trafficking is under-identified  and that it may be more prevalent than sex trafficking . Growing empirical evidence suggests that law enforcement agencies are unaware (or even in denial) that labor trafficking may be occurring in their jurisdictions [4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Researchers suggest that without adequate awareness of the problem, the ability to identify or prosecute labor trafficking violations will likely remain limited [9, 10].
By triangulating data from farmworkers, stakeholders, and law enforcement our study finds that although labor trafficking occurs in our sample jurisdictions law enforcement and labor officials are not responding to it. Perhaps they do not know how to identify labor trafficking or perhaps they do not define anti-labor trafficking as part of their mission. Unfortunately, because of their non-cooperation with our study we are unable to account for their non-response to the trafficking problem.
Identification of labor trafficking victims
The under-identification of labor trafficking victims may occur for a number of reasons including: confusing human trafficking with smuggling and illegal immigration, lack of awareness or denial among law enforcement agencies about the problem, victim non-reporting, and the lack of routine contact between potential victims and law enforcement. A primary issue in the identification of labor trafficking is confusion over its definition. For example, labor trafficking is entangled with illegal immigration  and is often confused with smuggling [4, 12]. Smuggling consists of ‘the facilitation’, transportation, attempted transportation, or illegal entry of a person(s) across an international border in violation of one or more countries [sic] laws, either clandestinely or through deception, such as the use of fraudulent documents” (: 2). Whereas smuggling includes two willing parties engaged in payment for transportation with the relationship ending upon reaching the destination, the purpose of trafficking is to exploit a victim through fraud or coercion about the purposes of their movement and exploitation of the victim continues after the period of movement . Although they are distinct activities, smuggling and trafficking may be intertwined in some situations. Therefore trafficking occurring in smuggling is often overlooked as merely a smuggling problem, which is the responsibility of federal law enforcement.
Some state and local law enforcement simply deny that trafficking could be occurring in their jurisdiction [4, 10]. Awareness of trafficking is greater in law enforcement agencies that have received training and are actively involved with federal agencies and also higher in states where there is anti-trafficking legislation . Researchers concluded that agencies need to be trained to identify and prosecute trafficking cases [5, 6, 7, 8]. In addition, labor trafficking victims may not know they are being trafficked [5, 6]. Undocumented migrants often expect unfair labor practices to be a normal part of living and they fear reporting these incidents because their perceptions of the police are shaped by experiences in their home countries with corrupt law enforcement. Fear that reporting incidents to the police may expose one’s status as an undocumented immigrant (potentially leading to deportation) may discourage victims from coming forward. Simply stated, victims who are in the country illegally may be afraid to reach out for assistance . Particularly in a time when repressive immigration laws are passed in an increasing number of states, immigrants (whether documented or not) have become more leery of social services and formal government agencies; unfortunately, researchers found that the longer immigrants stay in America, the more likely they are to experience unfair treatment and exploitative labor practices .
Finally, it is also important to consider that labor trafficking victims are substantially less likely to come in contact with law enforcement in the course of their daily activities than are sex trafficking victims. Sex trafficking victims may be originally misidentified as prostitutes and arrested by the police. The truth of their victimization may be uncovered after the arrest. Whereas police officers routinely handle vice crimes such as prostitution, labor trafficking does not have an analogous criminal activity (i.e., work in jobs that may result in exploitation is legal), making it even more difficult to identify these victims.
Although prior research suggests that law enforcement is unaware that labor trafficking may be occurring, this research has not been directly tied to law enforcement’s ability to identify actual trafficking happening in their communities. However, we believe that an important approach to understanding the identification of labor trafficking is through assessing the prevalence of labor trafficking compared to the recognition of labor trafficking by the police. This study sets out to fill this gap by comparing the perceptions of labor trafficking activities among four key stakeholders: farmworkers, community agencies, and law enforcement and labor department agencies.
The nature of labor trafficking makes it difficult to study. Researchers suggest that the best research approach is to use “multiple data sources and methods to triangulate data” . The current study uses a community-wide research design, i.e., involving three key stakeholders. We used the rapid appraisal method (RAM), an applied ethnographic method characterized by collecting data from multiple sources to triangulate findings [16, 17]. Our research site is limited to 17 counties in North Carolina. We focus on a single type of labor trafficking—trafficking for agricultural services. The counties are predominantly agricultural counties with large concentrations of farm laborers.
The interview instrument, which was adapted from one validated in a San Diego study, included primarily closed-ended questions covering demographics, housing, immigration experiences, agricultural experiences, trafficking and exploitation, movement within the United States, and the transportation of other goods into and within the United States . A total of 380 farmworkers were interviewed at residential migrant labor camps; at community events; and, in Western North Carolina, at integrated housing and locations (e.g., stores, laundromats) frequented by farmworkers. In all cases, farmworkers were approached; the study was explained as a study of labor practices; and individuals were asked to consent to complete the 15- to 20-min interview.
Individual and small-group stakeholder interviews were conducted with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs; e.g., advocacy and legal aid), clergy members, public health personnel, social service agencies, and law enforcement working in the 17 communities studied. These semi-structured interviews covered topics such as the labor market, health conditions, crime conditions, working and living conditions of farmworkers, and knowledge of human trafficking. The goal of these interviews was to explore stakeholder knowledge of issues related to migrant farm labor, primarily as they are related to labor trafficking victim identification and services.
Interview respondents were identified through a combination of purposive and snowball sampling. The identification of individuals to participate in the interviews involved first identifying non-law enforcement agencies and organizations in the communities that worked with migrant farmworkers. In all, we interviewed 16 individuals representing a total of eight non-law enforcement organizations throughout North Carolina. Some of these community agencies served the entire state and the experiences they reported did not correspond to a particular county.
The challenges we faced recruiting law enforcement agencies were telling in and of themselves. We selected law enforcement agencies primarily because of their locations in the major farming counties in which farmworker interviews were planned to be conducted. We contacted a total of 20 sheriffs in North Carolina. We sent e-mails to all of the sheriffs and left messages on voicemail.1 They were sent introductory and follow-up e-mails explaining the goals of the project, and each received multiple follow-up calls asking for a time for an interview. Two sheriffs refused to participate; three others explained that there was no need to do an interview because no incidents of human trafficking had been reported in their counties; and in 12 departments, callbacks were never received. All of these agencies were located in jurisdictions with farming activity where labor trafficking could be occurring. Eventually, only eight law enforcement officials—three sheriffs and five command staff members—from a total of three law enforcement agencies consented to be interviewed.
We also reached out to North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL) Agricultural Safety and Health (ASH) Bureau during the pilot study. The ASH is housed under the NCDOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Division where it, “conducts preoccupancy inspections for migrant labor camps and conducts other inspections to ensure compliance with applicable agricultural safety and health standards” [19, 20]. The ASH also produces publications related to farmworker health, including an agricultural health and safety guide that provides advice for agricultural workers in North Carolina but does not directly address labor trafficking. Unfortunately, after responding to initial calls about the research, ASH officials stopped returning calls to schedule an interview time and did not participate in the research.
Responses from the farmworker interviews were used to identify the level and type of abuse and exploitation workers experienced. Following Zhang , trafficking was measured conservatively, including only actual or threatened infringement of freedom of movement and actual or threatened physical violence. Abusive practices (not clearly amounting to labor trafficking violations) include other grossly unfair treatment or exploitative practices, including fraud and deception. Trafficking violations and other abusive practices may be perpetrated by individuals assisting workers with transportation to or within the United States as well as by employers. The survey items used to code a respondent as a victim of trafficking or other abuse are available on request from the authors.
Summary of trafficking and abusive practices experienced by farmworkers
Counties with LE interviews
Counties without LE interviews
• Trafficking violation
• Abusive practice
Any violation during transportationa
• Trafficking violation
• Abusive practice
• Trafficking violation
• Abusive practice
Non-law enforcement stakeholders
Non-law enforcement stakeholders consistently reported that labor trafficking violations (and not just abusive labor practices) are occurring in North Carolina. Nearly all said that working without getting paid occurs regularly. A community health worker indicated that when a new group of workers arrives, they are told they will be paid $8 per hour but will get paid $6.50 instead. Another health worker corroborated this report, telling us that workers are normally paid for 4–5 hours less per week than worked and about $1.50 to $2 per hour less than promised.
The farmworker interviews confirm these claims. One worker said his original contract said that he would be paid $9.30 an hour but that while he was in transit, the contract amount was reduced to $9.02 per hour. A worker from Puebla, Mexico said he injured his wrist on the job and the owner refused to pay for medical care. Unable to work for the last few weeks of the harvest, the owner also refused to pay the worker’s passage back to Mexico as had been previously agreed. Sometimes owners “disappear” at the end of the season and the workers do not get paid. A worker from Queretaro, Mexico said that he and four other workers were cheated out of their wages at the end of the season because the farmer and his whole family moved away. One farmworker reported that the farmer took out $100 from his first paycheck to pay for “safety materials and tools” needed to actually do his job.
Most stakeholders thought that farmworkers are abused in other ways not amounting to violations of the labor trafficking laws such as not being given adequate breaks to eat, drink, and use the bathroom. Some respondents expressed concerns over the personal safety of the farmworkers if a worker wants to wear protective equipment when spraying pesticides, the respondent noted, he has to provide his own even though the farmer has the safety equipment on-site “in case of inspection.”
Stakeholders described instances in which the farmworkers were threatened. One tobacco worker said that on one occasion, the company that bought the tobacco was unhappy about the quality of the products and that the owner, “took it out on the workers” by degrading them and threatening to fire them and have them deported. Although the most common types of threats appear to be being fired or deported, some workers have also been threatened with physical violence. Additionally, one farmworker organization reported that there are problems with advocates being granted permission to show up at the camp. Consequently, outreach workers felt unsafe when visiting certain camps. This organization reported having at least one confrontation with a grower every year. These confrontations have included being yelled at, having guns pulled on them, being locked into the camp, and being arrested for trespassing.
A few stakeholders recounted incidents that might have been genuine labor trafficking violations or maybe only abusive practices that fall in that grey area between exploitive working conditions and violations of law. These include instances in which farm workers were not allowed to leave or were even locked inside their living or working spaces. Even when workers are able to leave, stakeholders said, the workers frequently feel compelled to continue working regardless of the working and living conditions. According to the stakeholders some undocumented workers often feel they cannot quit because they have nowhere to go; they are intimidated by their crew leaders or feel they have made a commitment to work.
Although physical confinement was not prevalent, it is clear that workers are effectively confined on farms by other means, such as lack of transportation and fear of quitting due to visa restriction or migration debt. Such a feeling of entrapment is pervasive as legal migrant laborers cannot switch employers. They can only work for farmers who have petitioned for their visa applications. If the work ends prior to their contracted periods, they are homeless. Furthermore, the job is the only way they can earn money to support their families. For both documented and undocumented farm laborers, who incurred much debt for their migration (border crossing, recruitment fees and travel costs), quitting their job will also create payment problems. A legal advocate stated that in these situations an employer has provided a high-interest loan to the worker, who then has to continue working to earn enough money to pay back the employer, a classic example of peonage that the anti-labor trafficking movement targets. These restricted movements may not all individually qualify as labor trafficking, however in combination and without avenues for redress they created effective prisons from which farmworkers could not escape.
Despite familiarity with various forms of labor exploitation and trafficking the farmworker advocates still faced some confusion on how to separate labor trafficking activities from other unfair employment practices. This may explain why more farmworkers reported experiencing events that legally qualify as labor trafficking but neither the farmworker nor legal advocates in their communities recognize the experiences as labor trafficking. The results from surveys with farmworkers and non-law enforcement stakeholders suggest that exploitation of workers is common practice. However, the actual identification of labor trafficking violations remains a challenge for both the farm laborers and community agencies.
Law enforcement observations of and experiences with labor trafficking provide another critical perspective for understanding the identification of labor trafficking and exploitation. As described above, 17 of 20 sheriff’s departments and the state labor department refused to participate in this study. They did not make any claims about whether they believe trafficking is occurring in the state; but, after initially returning calls and tentatively agreeing to participate, they simply stopped responding to emails and calls from the project staff. The Sheriff’s departments contacted were all from the study area and were typically the largest, and in many cases the only, local law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction. Three of the sheriffs refused to participate in the project, claiming trafficking was not happening in their jurisdictions despite the fact that the farmworker interviews in their county revealed several instances of labor trafficking. The interviews with staff from the three sheriff’s offices that did participate in interviews also suggested that these departments did not view labor trafficking as occurring in their counties.
In general, local sheriffs identify with the challenges that farmers face in getting their crops to market. They recognize that labor shortages are a constant concern. For example, the migrant farmworker population in counties that lead Christmas tree production in the state increases dramatically during peak season. The priority for law enforcement during these peak seasons, according to top law enforcement officials, coincides with those of farm owners, to maximize the harvest for the good of the entire community. A sheriff in a largely agricultural community in the eastern part of the state, reported that abuses are not as common as they were 20 years ago saying, “farmworkers with more experience and autonomy are not forced to endure the harshest conditions because there seems to be enough work to go around. Farmers have a vested interest in keeping farmworkers happy. If a worker is being exploited, they can usually just leave and find work somewhere else. There is a high demand for experienced farmworkers.” This is in direct contrast to the reports by non-law enforcement stakeholders, who say that workers fear leaving their jobs.
Among law enforcement in counties in the eastern part of the state that rely on temporary agricultural worker visas programs, local law enforcement officials seem satisfied that oversight against labor trafficking is being handled by federal authorities, although they are not always clear on which agency is responsible for such oversight. More broadly, sheriffs are confused and frustrated with federal legislation regarding immigration enforcement issues and there is a tendency to confuse issues of trafficking with immigration violations. Finally, there is relatively little outreach to the migrant farm worker community and thus, there are a number of misconceptions about the prevalence and severity of issues related to labor trafficking. The majority of law enforcement interactions with the migrant community are reactive, typically following a formal police report. Although, we found no specific instances of local law enforcement failing or refusing to respond to reported human trafficking abuses labor trafficking victims in the studied counties, victim complaints are either not being reported to law enforcement, or, if reported, not being recognized as labor trafficking by law enforcement. Although law enforcement respondents felt that farmworkers were treated well, the sheriffs also mentioned that the increase in formal Latino rights organizations has provided critical reinforcement to the oversight of the farmworker camps. Besides formal federal and state oversight of the camps, the sheriffs indicated that these advocacy agencies provide additional opportunities for workers to report any problems. Although the police believe systems exist for victims to report, there is little direct outreach by the police to the migrant community and few incidents are ever investigated.
In contrast to our findings from farmworkers and their advocates, law enforcement in this study was unable to identify any labor trafficking problems. Despite the limited number of interviews we managed to conduct with law enforcement agencies in North Carolina, we find the responses consistent with those from other researchers [4, 9, 10], that law enforcement does not consider labor trafficking a problem in most jurisdictions. This is remarkable given that, a California study and our own survey of farmworkers found labor trafficking (and many forms of abusive employment practices) are relatively common among migrant laborers [18, 21]. It seems clear that a large gap exists between what law enforcement agencies in North Carolina see and what those seeking to identify and measure labor trafficking see. Obviously, one cannot expect effective counter measures when there is little perceived problem.
Definitional clarity also has direct implication on criminal investigations and prosecutions, as well as on the mobilization of resources in anti-trafficking programs. This definitional problem does not just afflict local law enforcement agencies; it also affects federal agencies in initiating investigations and pressing charges . The illegal status of many migrant farmworkers also confounds anti-trafficking identification efforts. Because of their lack of legal status, undocumented workers will most likely choose to remain quiet about abuses . Immigration raids at workplaces conducted by federal agents and the recent passage of state laws empowering local police to act on immigration matters only drive unauthorized workers further underground, thus making them even more vulnerable to trafficking violation and abuse at the workplace. Labor trafficking is essentially about violations of human rights at work. Workplaces and their activities are not the traditional charge of the criminal justice system thus making it difficult for the police to uncover violations that might rise to the level of human trafficking..
This study found a glaring gap between law enforcement perceptions of labor trafficking activities and the reality of labor trafficking reported by migrant farmworkers and related stakeholders in parts of North Carolina. Considering that the number of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina is estimated to be 150,000, any sizeable percentage of verified labor trafficking activities would suggest a large number of trafficking victims; therefore effective strategies are essential to improve law enforcement’s ability to identify, investigate, and prosecute traffickers.
Based on our findings we offer two recommendations for the response to the problem of labor trafficking. First, much can be learned from recent law enforcement efforts in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting sex trafficking cases. Similar efforts are sorely needed for the investigation of labor trafficking and its component crimes so that a comprehensive set of indicators can be developed to signal that there is a labor trafficking problem in the community. However, labor trafficking hides within the confines of legitimate employment, complicating efforts to identify labor trafficking. Unlike labor trafficking, police agencies have routine investigations on the sex trade, thus are afforded ample opportunities to pare out sex trafficking offenses. However the same cannot be said of police agencies when it comes to investigations on labor violations where labor trafficking activities likely occur.
Second, law enforcement agencies located in rural, agricultural areas must expand their mission to include protection of laborers and include farms and labor camps into their scope of routine surveillance. They must take a proactive not a reactive stance toward the crime affecting the farm labor force. In addition other government agencies including labor departments but also health, safety and housing departments need to be trained to recognize the signs of trafficking and increase their attention to labor issues in the agricultural sector.
This is the introductory script for both voicemails and emails: “I am a criminologist at RTI International in Research Triangle Park and I am working on a research project funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) related to human trafficking. Specifically, this project considers migrant labor and the movement of migrant laborers into our areas. I would like to set up an appointment with you to talk about your observations and experiences in ______ County. I am happy to travel to your office or, if you prefer, a short telephone call would probably be sufficient. This is an especially important initiative for NIJ and I want to make sure that local law enforcement is included. Please let me know when you might be available and I will adjust my schedule to meet yours.” The messages included both an office call back number and a personal cell number.
RTI International is an independent organization dedicated to conducting innovative, multidisciplinary research that improves the human condition.
This project was sponsored by Grant Number 2009-IJ-CX-0047, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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