There’s a good chance that the last egg you ate was produced by trafficked human labor, possibly involving workers who are underage.
Take Trillium Farms in Marion County, Ohio, which describes itself on its website as “one of the nation’s leading egg producers,” with a flock that produces “millions of safe, wholesome eggs each day.”
Federal authorities say that between 2011 and 2014, Trillium held contracts with a company that supplied workers who were mostly underage — some as young as 14 — to clean the company’s chicken coops, load and unload crates of chickens, and perform the grueling work of debeaking and vaccinating chickens.
The workers originated from Guatemala and were coerced by violence to travel to Ohio. Once settled, they lived in decrepit trailers and were forced over many years to work 12-hour days of harsh manual labor, according to federal court documents. As part of a conspiracy with the traffickers, the victims were isolated in every respect. Not only were they prevented from interacting with people outside their living quarters, but they also were forced to surrender their paychecks.
A Steady Flow of Cheap Labor
The ugly reality of the agriculture industry in the Midwest is that large farming operations are often dependent, knowingly or not, on labor that is trafficked from other countries.
“The demand for cheap labor keeps it coming,” said Whitney Howland, a social worker tasked with helping human trafficking victims for the International Institute of St. Louis, an advocacy organization for new immigrants.
According to the organization, 82 percent of trafficked workers into the St. Louis area came as laborers. Between 2014 and 2017, the majority originated from Mexico, India, Vietnam, or Thailand. Agriculture, landscaping, construction, and domestic servitude represented the top industries for forced labor.
Globally, the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, says that there are about 16 million people trapped as forced laborers in private-sector industries like agriculture, construction, or domestic work. They represent the majority of the 25 million trafficking victims worldwide. While sex trafficking preys mostly on women and girls, labor trafficking victims are predominantly male. They are also young: In the Americas, agriculture accounts for the majority of all child labor. At least 5.5 million children work on commercial farms or livestock herding operations.
Because it relies on a migratory workforce, seasonal work is ripe for worker abuse. In Missouri, half the workers in agriculture and livestock operations are migrants on temporary visas, which makes those operations highly susceptible to trafficking, according to Andrea Nichols, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who co-wrote a 2015 study of local trafficking.
“Oftentimes you think labor trafficking is only in the border states, but it’s here,” Nichols said. “They move where the work is. That’s why it’s so hard to identify.”
Unlike sex trafficking, which leaves a trail of documentation online, labor trafficking is more difficult to investigate. Its victims are often hidden and are not repeatedly sold. Tracing such activity is made harder with language and cultural barriers that inhibit communication with law enforcement.
Using Fraud to Move Labor North
Coercion is the number one way traffickers, who work as recruiters for large agriculture operations, get workers to travel thousands of miles from their home into situations from which they have little opportunity to escape. Traffickers make false promises of high-paying jobs or opportunities to become U.S. citizens, but when the laborers arrive, they are usually stripped of their passports, if they entered legally. Many do in fact arrive lawfully, according to a 2014 study by the Urban Institute, a social policy research organization in Washington, D.C., which found that 71 percent of all labor-trafficking victims who worked in the United States had visas.
To get those documents, and to assure safe transport, victims often have to pay recruitment fees to the trafficker. The average price is at least $6,150, according to the Urban Institute. Paying that back is often impossible, especially when the workers are also in debt for their housing, meals, and other amenities.
“So you have people leaving with nothing, and they come home with nothing,” Nichols said.
In the Trillium case, eight of the victims rescued were under the age of 18, and only two were adults. Court documents show that the traffickers who contracted with Trillium targeted minors because they believed they were “easier to bring successfully into the country, easier to control,” and were considered the hardest workers.
In every case, the victim families gave the recruiters the deeds to their family homes to pay recruitment fees. Some of the minors were promised that their passage to the United States would allow them to attend school. Once in Ohio, however, the children never saw a classroom. Instead, under continual threats of violence or death to them and their family back home, they were forced to hand over their paychecks for rent, food, and other debts, which increased by the day. Some living conditions were described as “unsanitary and unsafe, with no bed, no heat, no hot water, no working toilets, and vermin.”
According to court documents, one victim worked between six and seven days a week and 12 hours a day, even when injured. He owed $16,000 in fees to his trafficker.
Trafficking off the Farm and into the Home
Corporate farming operations can employ hundreds of workers in one location, which might be hundreds of miles from a small town or big city.
“You’re not going to see any signs; it’s so secluded,” said Erin Heil, a criminal justice professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville who studies labor trafficking.
But in larger communities, where people are trafficked in lower numbers to storefront businesses, cases can become even harder to detect.
In southern Illinois, Heil works with local law enforcement and social service providers to help them see clues. Sometimes an entire business is staffed by workers without proper immigration documents, such as H-2B visas, which are required by temporary laborers to work in the United States. Heil says it is important to make workers feel safe under questioning so they can disclose the terms of their employment without fearing that they’ll end up behind bars. Many of them may have their H-2B visas, but those are often confiscated by the trafficker and held as a threat.
“I think we’re just recognizing it more now that we’re identifying it as issue in the Midwest and something that doesn’t just affect the border towns,” Heil said.
Domestic workers such as nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers are particularly vulnerable. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., says the industry employs 2 million women in the United States, the majority of which are immigrants, and about 800,000 are trafficked. Only eight states have passed worker rights legislation giving them protections from harassment and guaranteed days off. The organization says the majority of live-in workers are paid below state minimum wage.
The invisibility of trafficked workers in the home is especially dire. In its 2017 report, the NDWA found that many workers are in situations for as long as 25 years. They remain in their situation because employers isolate them from communication and control them through abuse.
The second-longest domestic trafficking case investigated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit to date was in the Milwaukee suburbs, where Jefferson and Elnora Calimlim, a married couple who were both doctors, recruited a 19-year-old victim from the Philippines in 1985 to work as a maid in their home. During the couple’s federal trial, the victim, then 38, said she was forbidden to go outside and was required to live in the basement. Her work hours ran from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the year.
The couple kept the woman effectively hidden for nearly 20 years. When visitors arrived at their front door, the woman was instructed to lock herself in her basement bedroom until the guests left. A tip in September 2004 led to her rescue. When the FBI and local police arrived, they found the victim hiding behind a closet door.
The couple was deported to the Philippines in 2012 after serving a six-year prison sentence. The victim received $900,000 in restitution.
Going After the Employers
Notwithstanding the case of the Calimlims, targeting employers rarely yields results. Advocates for victims say a big reason is the recruitment network that produces third-party surrogates for business owners, who may or may not know how their labor is recruited and treated once onsite. In the Ohio case, for example, Trillium Farms said it was misled by the contractor tasked with recruiting labor for its locations and that it “immediately cooperated and assisted in the investigation.”
The landmark federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 added protections for victims and government funding to combat human trafficking. However, some advocates say the Trump administration is already undermining those efforts by calling for increased and expansive policing of immigrant communities, which will make it harder for trafficked workers to come forward.
Heil says corporate liability laws could be rewritten so they apply to systemic labor trafficking.
“It’s a very hard thing to prosecute. You have to show coercion,” she said.
When trafficking is discovered, Heil said, “It’s usually only the crew leaders who get punished legally.”
A more realistic way to make a dent in labor trafficking is for the industries to police themselves, according to Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a national coalition of advocates in Washington, D.C., dedicated to changing public policy when it comes to fighting human trafficking.
Bruggeman suggests that industries susceptible to trafficked labor adopt certification models similar to those for food or textile producers involving organics. The Fair Food Standards Council, based in Sarasota, Florida, has already established a program recognizing companies that meet certain standards involving worker rights. For example, participating farms invite the organization to deliver worker-education sessions in different languages, help workers identify abuse or safety hazards, agree to third-party auditing of its locations, and get involved in a complaint process if abuses are found. The program also prohibits growers from hiring third-party recruiters and insists they get directly involved in the hiring process, which gives them a greater share of the responsibility.
The organization says that since 2011, when the program was introduced, about 1,800 worker complaints have been resolved and nearly 150,000 workers have been educated on their rights. Like other programs that assure transparency for consumers, the Fair Food certification has picked up momentum among some of the leading U.S. food buyers, including Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, Aramark, and Trader Joe’s.
“The buyers commit to buying produce free of exploitation and will pay slightly higher than the market rate for that produce to guarantee it is free of exploitation,” Bruggeman said.
After Freedom, Resilience
Advocates for trafficking victims will refrain from using terms like “smuggling,” because it implies the workers are intentionally trying to cut corners to get into the United States. That isn’t the case, according to Howland, who says laborers are most often lured because they are promised opportunities, mobility, and financial success.
“If they are being trafficked, they are not at fault,” she said.
What Howland found in her work is that while trafficked victims may feel trapped, isolated, and fearful, they are “all resilient people.”
“They are some of the strongest people I ever met in my life, personally and professionally. They were able to survive situations that I don’t think I ever could at all,” Howland said. “They want to find work and don’t want to rely on people helping them. They are not helpless. After they survive these situations, they flourish, which is amazing.”