Migrant Worker Exploitation
The exploitation of migrant workers is a problem in places all across the United States. One area where exploitation and abuse is extremely widespread is in the agricultural industry. In an article published in The Gaurdian, entitled “Field work’s dirty secret: agribusiness exploitation of undocumented labor”, author Sadhbh Walshe details the harsh and oftentimes illegal treatment of agricultural workers in the United States. As Walshe explains, “Most farm work in America is performed by immigrants, most of whom are undocumented and therefore exploitable”. The work performed by these immigrant workers oftentimes takes place under deplorable conditions. Walshe writes,
“When you consider what these jobs entail – hours of backbreaking work in terrible and often dangerous conditions, subsistence wages with little or no time off, and none of the protections or perks that most of us enjoy (like paid sick days, for instance) – it’s hard to see why anyone with other options would subject themselves to a life that is barely a step above slavery”.
Walshe explains that although there was a guest-worker program put in place in the 1980s that would supposedly offer protections to workers, employers consistently get around the provisions put forward in the bill through various loopholes, and continue to hire undocumented workers instead. The statistics are very clear about who employers prefer to hire; Walshe writes,
“According to a report compiled by Eric Ruark, the director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (Fair), as of 2006, only 27% of workers hired by agribusinesses are American citizens, 21% are green card holders, around 1% are part of the guest worker program … and a whopping 51% are unauthorized immigrants”.
Employers offer a variety of reasons why they are supposedly unable to increase wages and improve conditions for their workers. They continue to make claims that paying these workers a livable wage would mean that the cost of food for American consumers would skyrocket. In response to this claim, “…a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that an increase in farm workers’ wages of 40% would result in an annual rise in household spending by the American consumer of just $16” (Walshe).
And in addition, the agriculture industry continues to get away with the routine practice of worker exploitation by threatening to outsource food production, “like the suggestion that should the supply of cheap labor dry up in the US, they will outsource our food production to China” (Walshe). In response to these threats, “Several studies have been conducted…that expose these hollow threats for the nonsense that they are” (Walshe).
Although most people would be outraged if they truly knew the conditions under which these migrants were forced to work, most citizens are not aware that human trafficking and worker exploitation in the agricultural industry is a significant problem right here in Ohio.
Worker Exploitation in Ohio
The Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to ending the epidemic of human trafficking and modern day slavery around the world, details the abuses in their 2004 report, “Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery in Ohio”.
The Polaris Project reports that “Ohio businesses employ migrant labor in many different sectors throughout the state. Most of the migrant labor in Ohio and the United States is concentrated in poorly regulated industries that demand cheap labor”. The hiring of migrant workers in Ohio is extremely prevalent in the agricultural industry. The report shows that “Agriculture is Ohio’s most lucrative sector in which it generates over six billion annually. The majority of migrant laborers are Mexican and they are recruited from Texas, Florida and Mexico”.
The Columbus Dispatch details the most recent statistics in their article from January 2017, entitled “Report shows human trafficking on rise in Ohio, nationally”. Author Alan Johnson states that reports of human trafficking have increased significantly across the country, and in Ohio. according to The Polaris Project’s national tip line, “Ohio trafficking cases were reported from 1,352 calls to the national hotline last year. That compares to 289 cases based on 1,070 calls in 2015. The 2016 numbers reflect a nearly four-fold increase over the figures from 2013”. Johnson reports that “The most commonly cited situations in Ohio where trafficking was reported were traveling sales crews, restaurants, health and beauty businesses and agriculture”.
One such Ohio company within the agricultural industry that has exploited migrant workers for decades is Case Farms chicken plant.
The History of Case Farms Chicken Plant
Case Farms was opened in 1986 in Canton, Ohio, and produces chicken for restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Taco Bell. As the company expanded in the 1980s, the need for workers increased. In particular, the demand for workers who would put up with the poor working conditions was desperately needed. Therefore, “Scrambling to find workers in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties, Case Farms sent recruiters across the country to hire Latino workers” (Grabell). In one instance, a group of migrant workers were recruited to come to the Ohio plant from a town in Texas, with the promise of a job and housing. However, what they found instead was deplorable living and working conditions.
“When workers arrived, they encountered a situation that a federal judge later called ‘wretched and loathsome’. They were packed in small houses with about twenty other people. Although it was the middle of winter, the houses had no heat, furniture, or blankets. One worker said that his house had no water, so he flushed the toilet with melted snow. They slept on the floor, where cockroaches crawled over them. At dawn, they rode to the plant in a dilapidated van whose seating consisted of wooden planks resting on cinder blocks. Exhaust fumes seeped in through holes in the floor” (Grabell).
Case Farms benefited tremendously from Guatemalan refugees seeking asylum from the violence inflicted by the Guatemalan Civil War. Case Farms human-resources manager took it upon himself to recruit these vulnerable refugees for his workforce. In 2014, reflecting on his hiring practices, Beecher stated: “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot” (Grabell).
Despite the fact that workers have attempted to go on strike several times to demand better working conditions, the dangerous and deplorable working conditions have not substantially improved.
Current Conditions at Case Farms
In May of 2017, Michael Grabell of The New Yorker magazine wrote an article entitled “Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant”. This article described the conditions workers currently face at Case Farms. Grabell tells the story of a Guatemalan immigrant named Osiel López Pérez, who worked at the plant cleaning the machines used to process the slaughtered chickens. One day at the plant when Oseiel was cleaning the “liver-giblet chiller”, there was not a ladder for him to use. Therefore, he ended up doing exactly as his supervisor had taught him:
“…he climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it a hundred and eighty degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine ‘literally ripped off his left leg,’ medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg” (Grabell).
Unfortunately, Osiel’s experience was not an isolated incident; inside the plant, “The combination of speed, sharp blades, and close quarters is dangerous: since 2010, more than seven hundred and fifty processing workers have suffered amputations” (Grabell). Grabell writes that “Case Farms plants are among the most dangerous workplaces in America. In 2015 alone, federal workplace-safety inspectors fined the company nearly two million dollars, and in the past seven years it has been cited for two hundred and forty violations”. Grabell states that “Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with”. And since many of the workers are undocumented, “the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries, and quash dissent”. Grabell writes about his tour of the plant, in which he learned from the workers that they were paid “around $2.25 for every thousand chickens”. And yet, the plant continues to operate and employ these vulnerable migrant workers like Oseil López Pérez.
In light of exploitation such as this, Ohio’s government has attempted to make changes to address the issue of trafficking.
Anti-Trafficking Efforts in Ohio
In March of 2012, Governor John Kasich signed an executive order which created the “Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, charging the group with marshaling state resources to put a stop to human trafficking” (humantrafficking.ohio.gov). The three core Ohio cities participating in this task force are Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. In their document, “Combating Human Trafficking in Ohio”, the task force lists its objectives as the following:
- Identify and refer foreign born victims of trafficking
- Provide training and technical assistance
- Build anti-trafficking coalitions
- Promote Public Awareness
The goals of this task force are certainly ambitious, and help is desperately needed for the many victims of worker exploitation in Ohio. However, it remains unclear whether or not this task force will actually make the changes desperately needed for the most vulnerable victims of trafficking.
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