A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on private property rights has human trafficking experts, including former law enforcement officers, advocates, and attorneys, worried that trafficked laborers will now be left without anyone looking out for them. These advocates say union organizers are among the first to recognize signs of labor trafficking.
In the Cedar Point Nursery v Hassid decision, announced in late June, the Supreme Court decided to uphold private property rights over organizing rights, prohibiting California union organizers from fields and bunkhouses.
The conservative majority held that the access regulations allowed “physical invasion” of the land without compensation.
Increasingly, many farmworkers are indigenous Mexicans. In many cases, they do not speak, read, or write English or Spanish, and may be unaware of their rights while working in the U.S. That makes them vulnerable to labor abuses or trafficking.
“A lot of these workers are living in labor camps owned by the employer, are transported to and from their worksites, and these folks are isolated,” said Elizabeth Strater, United Farm Workers Director of Strategic Campaigns. “They never leave their employers’ property. In some instances, they are isolated by design.”
What is labor trafficking?
Labor trafficking is a form of human trafficking. It involves forcing or coercing someone to provide labor or services, such as picking produce in the fields or washing dishes in a restaurant.
California’s Department of Justice estimates that up to 17,500 trafficking victims are brought into the country annually. Men, women, entire families, and children as young as 5 years old have been found to be victims of labor trafficking in agriculture, working as migrant or seasonal farmworkers harvesting and packing crops or raising animals, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Given its enormous agricultural sector, Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Greg Peterson said the county is likely a leading county for labor trafficking. However, experts say it is significantly underreported and under-enforced in comparison to sex trafficking.
“I believe that labor trafficking is hiding in plain sight,” said Stephany Powell, director of law enforcement training and survivor services for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “How many times do we drive past agricultural places and see people picking cherries or vegetables? Your assumption is if they’re out there doing that in plain sight that it must be okay. You aren’t even thinking that these people are underpaid, not being paid at all, or are being kept in living conditions that no one would live in.”