Do successful prosecutions constitute success in the fight against modern-day slavery?

For almost a quarter century now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has participated in the successful prosecution of forced labor operations spanning states such as Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, operations involving hundreds of workers at a time, in which employers use violence such as shootings, pistol-whippings, beatings, and sexual assault to keep indebted workers from leaving labor camps.  These traffickers control one’s job, housing, transportation, communication with the outside world, and visitors, instilling a climate of fear through using everything from psychological coercion to physical violence all the way to physical restraint.  CIW members helped people in their escapes, and collaborated with sheriff’s deputies, government agents, and NGOs on successful prosecutions.  Over 1,500 people were liberated, and over a dozen employers have gone to federal prison.

But over the years we came to ask ourselves a very important question: Is it truly “success” to have brought those already-existing operations to justice?  We helped pioneered the worker-based, victim-centered, multi-sector approaches to investigations, collaborating with law enforcement.  We know the work is urgent and essential.  Actual success, however, is getting to the point where the “Slavery in Fields” is history, not 21st century headline news.

For five years now, in the tomato industry, we have reached that level of prevention through our Fair Food Program (FFP).  That means for the past five years, no person has toiled in forced labor on farms of participating growers.  Moreover, if someone were to attempt to commit that crime, workers would bring it to light and end it.  The Fair Food Program, with its pioneering Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model, now includes 13 transnational corporate buyers and nearly 30 agribusinesses in a 650 million-dollar industry.  Worker-driven Social Responsibility, in contrast to traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), imposes real market consequences for slavery and sexual violence and ensures market incentives for humane workplaces.

Outside that brave new world of the FFP, however, the old world of degraded labor conditions and exploitation continues to spin.   In 2014, while the FFP was slavery-free, another case, horrifying in its predictability, came to light.   In a complaint filed in federal court, workers told of a vegetable grower who brandished his gun in the fields, ordering the crew to ‘pick faster’.  The farm crewleader kept a rifle and gun in open display at his side in the work van while he drove his crew to the fields, threatened male workers with weapons, and sexually harassed female workers.  In addition to trafficking charges, the complaint listed a multitude of other serious labor abuses.  The prevalence of such an operation in the world outside the FFP shows how revolutionary the absence of slavery is in the new world.

But there is still good news, even for those workers beyond the protections of the Fair Food Program. The two worlds co-exist, but their co-existence will not be tenable for long.   In the afore-mentioned case, for example, it was workers newly trained on the FFP code of conduct who called and reported the existence of forced labor in the old world that they had managed to flee, thus launching the investigation.

In 2010, the CIW received the TIP Award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for, in part, successful prosecutions of slavery and helping survivors..  In 2015, the CIW was awarded the Presidential Medal For Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Modern-Day Slavery for “pioneering the Fair Food Program, empowering agricultural workers, and leveraging market forces and consumer awareness to promote supply chain transparency and eradicate modern slavery on participating farms”.  The existence of the new world in agriculture, the Fair Food Program, shows the arc of progress and change.  Workers who have lived in the new world will ensure that the old world eventually meets its far-overdue demise.

In the meantime, the U.S. government must join this program.  In the early 1990s, when the CIW and others reported modern-day slavery operations to the Department of Justice, the government responded by forming an Anti-Trafficking Unit and focusing on cutting-edge labor trafficking prosecutions.   Today, the U.S. government, in addition to its commendable commitment to prosecutions, should also commit to prevention, via procurement from Fair Food Program farms, so that we can truly end slavery now and achieve that ultimate measure of success in the fight against slavery: a world with zero victims.

JohnHope-Germino

JohnHope-Germino

Laura Germino directs the Anti-Slavery Campaign for CIW.  Ms. Germino has helped develop curriculum for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on advanced investigative techniques in human trafficking and for the National Sheriffs' Association on first response to victims of crime. As a co-founder of the Freedom Network Training Institute, she trains NGOs and law enforcement agencies on how to identify and put a stop to modern slavery operations. Ms. Germino was the first-ever United States recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Person’s Hero Award.