In ‘modern-day slavery’ bust, arrests largely spared farmers. Here’s why.

The value of a blueberry harvest in Georgia runs to more than $255 million. (AJC archive photo)

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The value of a blueberry harvest in Georgia runs to more than $255 million. (AJC archive photo)

It is not clear which businesses benefited from the exploited labor. That’s a problem, advocates say.

Through her work with the Georgia Legal Services Program, Solimar Mercado-Spencer is providing free legal representation to victims of an alleged “modern-day slavery” operation on South Georgia farms. As news spread of the federal investigation that uncovered the abuses — which authorities say included at least two instances of workers being forced to dig for onions with their bare hands, under the threat of gun violence — Mercado-Spencer says she heard different versions of the same question: “Should I stop buying Georgia onions?”

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Her response: “It’s not as simple as that.”

A boycott of crops grown by exploited migrant labor would be difficult to put in practice, in large part because it is not clear which farms were the scene of crimes described in the explosive Nov. 22 indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia.

Most of those charged were farm labor contractors or recruiters — middlemen-type figures who found workers in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and brought them to Georgia under the H-2A program, a temporary visa for seasonal agricultural labor. Many farmers who needed the workers got them through the contractors, making it difficult to prove if farmers are legally liable for the abuses investigators found.

Out of 24 defendants with alleged ties to the “forced labor trafficking ring” of farmworkers, just two are explicitly identified as business owners: Charles King, the owner of Kings Berry Farms and Stanley McGauley, the owner of Hilltop Packing. Both are residents of Waycross.

Once in Georgia, conspirators allegedly sold and traded workers amongst themselves.

“Nobody knows where those workers worked because they were moved around,” Mercado-Spencer said.

What do contractors do?

As domestic sources of labor dry up, farmers have been increasingly relying on foreign workers and the H-2A program to keep worksites staffed. But recruiting H-2A workers can be a bureaucratically cumbersome process. Program requirements include feeding, housing and transporting workers. To avoid the hassle and cut costs, growers are outsourcing those tasks to farm labor contractors, a trend that worries farmworker advocates.

According to Victoria Mesa-Estrada, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, many contractors and recruiters are immigrants or former farmworkers themselves.

“What they do is they typically go back to their communities in their home countries. They gain people’s trust and that’s how they recruit their workers… And initially they’re probably thinking they’re helping their community and providing jobs. But then they start getting greedy,” she said. “And as they get greedy, they start getting abusive. They start cutting corners at the expense of workers’ well-being.”

ExploreModern-day slavery uncovered in South Georgia

Not all farm labor contractors break the rules: some are well-established professionals who operate legally. But others, investigators say, grow their margins by unlawfully taking advantage of workers. Promised wages don’t materialize, transportation expenses are not covered, and travel documents and passports are confiscated, to prevent escapes.

In 2020, Georgia-based labor contractors brought over 17,000 temporary farmworkers to the Peach State through the H-2A program, up from 6,500 in 2015, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of federal data compiled by the Office of Foreign Labor Certification. In total, contractors employed 64% of the total Georgia H-2A workforce in 2020, up from 53% five years prior.

“Farm labor contractors play an important role within the H-2A program, and using one can be beneficial to farmers and workers alike,” said Chris Butts, executive vice president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Associations, in an email sent to the AJC. It is “important to remember that the alleged abuses are not inherent in the H-2A program, and not all labor contractors should be tainted because of terrible actors.”

He added: “We believe that even one instance of worker abuse like those alleged in the recent indictment is unacceptable.”

Holding farmers accountable

Investigations into the South Georgia labor trafficking ring are ongoing and, depending on the evidence authorities uncover, it is possible that more growers could be charged, according to Mike Rios, southeast regional enforcement coordinator at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which oversees enforcement of H-2A program rules.

When determining responsibility for wrongdoing, “a topic that comes up often is: exactly how do we bring the grower into the fold?” Rios said.

How you can fight farmworker abuse

  • Spencer-Mercado suggests trying to learn as much as possible about where the food you buy comes from. Shopping at local farmers markets can ensure your purchase wasn’t grown under dubious labor standards.
  • Laura Germino, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based nonprofit that has assisted in the prosecution of several farm slavery operations recommends consumers support the retail food companies that have signed up for the Fair Food Program at fairfood.org, which enforces strict worker safety rules.

To hold both the farmer and the contractor accountable for labor violations, authorities must prove that the farmer exercised a significant degree of involvement in and control over the mistreatment of workers.

According to Shelly Anand, that’s a tall order. “It’s very difficult to prove liability unless these contractors are willing to say, ‘I was told to do this by the farmer,’” according to Anand, the executive director of Sur Legal Collaborative, an Atlanta-based workers’ rights non-profit.

Anand added, “They need a smoking gun in order to hold the farmer accountable.”

In Anand’s view, that degree of separation from legal liability is a reason why some farmers collaborate with contractors in the first place.

Rios agrees.

“Growers use farm labor contractors for various reasons. Some reasons are business-related, financial reasons. If we are honest, sometimes they do want to maintain an arm’s length distance between what happens to farmworkers and themselves,” he said. “And so far, it has worked.” But not being legally liable for abuses doesn’t necessarily mean business owners are unaware of how workers on their farms are treated, according to Rios.

For the status quo to meaningfully improve, civil rights attorneys say more farmers should be on the hook for labor violations.

“I think that until federal agencies pursue all their powers and legal avenues, you know, to make the whole chain of employers responsible for these labor violations, all we’re going to see is a bunch of farm labor contractors in jail and employers just moving to the next farm labor contractors that can do these same abuses and not get caught,” Mesa-Estrada said. “That is the reality of agriculture in America.”

According to Anand, going after contractors “is a game of whack-a-mole … you’re not going to get anything done.”

When it comes to holding bad actors accountable, Rep. David Scott of Atlanta, the chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, could hold some influence.

In a letter Scott sent Dec. 14 to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he called for them to “aggressively expand monitoring and enforcement powers in order to protect seasonal and migrant workers.” He also posed questions about oversight of the H-2A program.

Data specialist John Perry contributed to this report. Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.


How you can fight farmworker abuse

  • Spencer-Mercado suggests trying to learn as much as possible about where the food you buy comes from. Shopping at local farmers markets can ensure your purchase wasn’t grown under dubious labor standards.
  • Laura Germino, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based nonprofit that has assisted in the prosecution of several farm slavery operations recommends consumers support the retail food companies that have signed up for the Fair Food Program at fairfood.org, which enforces strict worker safety rules.

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