© 2021 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
IPR News

Labor Trafficking Cases Increase During Pandemic

Daniel Krueger
An organization tracked calls made to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and found an increase in reports of labor trafficking in agriculture sectors.

Labor trafficking during the pandemic has increased, according to the number of calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Polaris, an organization that works to stop such trafficking, tracked the numbers and found a more than 70 percent increase in reports during a six-month period of forced, coerced or fraudulent labor for H-2A visa holders. Those visas allow U.S. businesses to temporarily hire agricultural workers from other countries if there aren't enough U.S. citizens to fill the vacancies.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the systemic problems that are inherent in the temporary visa system that leave migrant workers vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation," the study stated.

Andrea Rojas, the director of strategic initiatives on labor trafficking at Polaris, said they found labor trafficking in agricultural workers was even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think it presents a great opportunity for the U.S. to really review how the system is structured, and how we as a society decide to treat workers that we decide are essential in order to maintain the fresh produce on our tables. And yet we fail constantly to protect them," Rojas said.

Rojas added the numbers Polaris found are just the tip of the iceberg because of how difficult trafficking is to report. She said people should consider the number of people who don't have access to resources to report labor trafficking, or those who can't find a safe place to report.

"Even when fewer numbers are showing in our hotline, that doesn't mean that it's not prevalent. That doesn't mean that it's not happening in larger numbers, that only means that this is the case that we hear about," she said.

In 2020, there were at least 4483 H-2A visa holders in the state. Most of the people in the H-2A program in 2019 worked on farm construction and detasseling and harvest field work.

Available data on victims and survivors of labor trafficking from the last two years show 98 percent were male and 99 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

According to Iowa Legal Aid, these individuals have lawful rights including $15.37 per hour, free housing and meals.

The study Polaris conducted separated time periods into three designated blocks:

  1. April 1 - Sept. 30, 2019
  2. Oct. 1, 2019 - March 31, 2020
  3. April 1 - Sept. 30, 2020

In the third time segment, the average number of labor trafficking situations per day nearly doubled from the second.

Notable decreases in instances of reported labor trafficking occurred in the hospitality industry.

"While it is hard to prove with our data, it is likely that this can be attributed in large part to a significant slowdown of economic activity and in some situations, a complete shutdown of this segment of the economy," the study stated.

Rojas clarified that the study found correlations between the pandemic and reported labor trafficking cases, but causation was much harder to prove.

U.S. Code defines labor trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

“It’s based on failures to protect groups that are historically been apart of systems of protections and access to services and have greater challenges on top of navigating these systems," Rojas added.

Polaris published several policy recommendations for federal, state and local governments to improve the systems in place that are "clearly inadequate."

They include, but are not limited to, encouraging more interagency collaboration, enforcing the ban on recruitment fees, improving transparency and access to resources and protecting whistleblowers.

Rojas said the best way to stop trafficking is to change the system, which currently enables it.

"In the context of labor trafficking, I think where it gets more complicated, we're speaking about trafficking happening in industries that are legal, so they are not operating in underground markets," she said when defining labor and sex trafficking. "The conditions that allow enable trafficking are all these loopholes in legislation and regulations in workers' protection, that traffickers use in order to exploit human beings with the intent to gain a profit."

They also urge employers and legislators to improve access to medical care for these workers.

Rafael Flores, the communications manager at Polaris, said some H-2A visa holders reported they do not have medical care.

"We also saw that at least one-third of the callers that reported some type of situation that resembled human trafficking in their field, they also told us that they were denied medical attention," Flores said. He emphasized that this was during the worst of the pandemic.

A study published in the National Library of Medicine estimated approximately nine percent of migrant agricultural workers died of COVID-19 in the U.S.

If you or someone you know is a possible victim of labor trafficking, contact the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris.