Today, Univision released an important exposé highlighting a case of forced labor on a potato farm in the Texas Panhandle. Their investigation reveals an elaborate scheme of forced labor and recruitment fraud that has been affecting workers on this farm for years.

Workers at Larsen Farms report paying thousands of dollars in illegal recruitment fees in order to obtain H-2A temporary work visas. One of the farm labor contractors involved in this scheme is facing federal criminal charges for an alleged “pay-to-work” scheme. According to Univision, when workers arrive at the farm, they face physical and emotional abuse. Workers also told Univision that they are afraid to report this exploitative situation for fear of being deported and retaliation against their family.

Every year, more than 250,000 workers travel to the United States on H-2A temporary work visas to work on U.S. farms. These workers are an essential part of our national workforce, toiling on farms day in and day out to ensure our nation is fed. While most employers abide by the law, systemic flaws and a lack of proper oversight allow a minority of bad actors to exploit workers with impunity.

“Sadly, the allegations concerning exploitative work conditions at this particular farm are far from unique. Each year, our team interacts with thousands of farmworkers in Texas: the majority of employers strive to provide safe workplaces, but about a third of workers do report some form of abuse, and 13% report facing force, fraud or coercion on the job,” said Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, Program Manager at the McCain Institute.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak has put these workers in even greater danger. Farmworkers have been deemed part of the “critical workforce”, and yet no enforceable measures have been put into place to protect these essential workers. Many H-2A workers live in crowded employer-provided housing with no room to self-isolate, have limited access to proper safety protective equipment or handwashing stations, and are transported to worksites in crowded vans.

The McCain Institute’s Combatting Human Trafficking program has been conducting outreach to farmworkers in Texas, including workers on this farm, for the past two years. During that time, the McCain Institute’s outreach team has spent more than 12,000 hours connecting directly with farmworkers. The McCain Institute knows all too well that the exploitation allegedly occurring at Larsen Farms cannot be blamed on one bad apple, but is the result of a system that makes workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Workers in the H-2A program often arrive in the U.S. already in debt from illegal recruitment fees. They are often hesitant to report abuse as their immigration status is tied to their employer and their employer controls their housing and often provides their only transportation options. And, as highlighted in the 2020 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, even when perpetrators are prosecuted, a loophole in U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regulations allows convicted traffickers to regain their farm labor contracting licenses and continue to recruit foreign workers.

Urgent action is needed to both respond to the immense threat COVID-19 poses to farmworkers and amend the H-2A program to better prevent exploitation. Emergency rules should be put in place to protect migrant farmworkers, including enforceable regulations mandating that employers provide adequate housing facilities for workers to quarantine when they arrive in the U.S., limit the number of workers in employer-owned housing and transportation, and provide adequate education in the worker’s language on COVID-19.

Likewise, the H-2A program should be reformed to allow workers to port their visa to other certified employers. More resources should be dedicated to the U.S. Department of Labor to allow that agency to expand inspections of H-2A housing, implement routine inspections of H-2A employer payroll records, and strengthen complaint processes.

“We call on our partners in government, civil society and the private sector to join with us in re-launching a constructive dialogue about how to reduce the likelihood of exploitation of this essential workforce, through common-sense improvements to the H-2A program and increased transparency and industry-led accountability in the agricultural supply chain,” said Kristen Abrams, Senior Director of the Combatting Human Trafficking Program at the McCain Institute.

 

About the Combatting Human Trafficking Program:

Through innovative programs, collaborative partnerships and policy advocacy, the Combatting Human Trafficking program drives systemic change and implements comprehensive, action-based solutions to prevent and end all forms of modern slavery. We develop and deploy strategic initiatives to secure justice for victims, build the capacity of trafficking response networks, facilitate survivors leadership, leverage investigative journalism and data analytics to inform trafficking interventions, and cultivate emerging best practices in the field through learning convenings.

 

About the McCain Institute: 

Guided by values that have animated the career of Senator John McCain and the McCain family for generations, the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing character-driven global leadership based on security, economic opportunity, freedom and human dignity – in the United States and around the world. The Institute seeks to promote humanitarian action, human rights and democracy, and national security, and to embrace technology in producing better designs for educated decisions in national and international policy.