The Dark Side of Agriculture: Labor Trafficking in the Fields

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

By Melinda Sampson

My journey into anti-human trafficking work began in the fields of Eastern North Carolina. I had just gotten a new job at a newspaper. I wanted bylines. I wanted awards and accolades. I was the stereotypical hungry journalist.

I did not know, when a volunteer with the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee in Dudley, North Carolina, contacted me, what exactly to expect.

All I knew is that I was going to jump at the opportunity to tell the stories of men and women who were a mystery to me. 

I was excited, but I could have never imagined what I would eventually learn.

I first met a man who came to the U.S. from Guatemala. 

He mortgaged his home to paythe price to get to the United States for a job opportunity that became a nightmare. 

Standing in front of a bright blue trailer in Seven Springs, his entire hand bandaged, he recounted his story. Translated by a FLOC volunteer, he said in a voice that was tired and a shaking, he wanted to return home, but he could not. 

He said he could not work either because the machinery the workers were using to put in tobacco had taken off part of his finger and that injury would keep him out of work for weeks. 

After that accident, he stood in a sweltering tobacco field for an hour waiting on the labor contractor to decide to get him medical attention. 

The single-wide trailer he was living in was shared by eight other men. There was no air conditioner. There were not enough beds for eight men. 

At the labor camp that looked like a trailer park, workers hid behind clothing hanging out to dry. They were scared. The men he lived with were not there because they were scared, too.

There was something in me that shook a little after visiting with him.

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

A few weeks later, I visited a camp in Wilson County where I met a man who had gotten to the U.S. with the help of a coyote. He traveled on foot across Mexico for five days and nights.

He had worked in Florida and New Jersey as a migrant farmworker when I met him, but said his living conditions in North Carolina were by far the worst.

At the time of our talk, he was living in a cement facility with open bathrooms and sleeping quarters. He showed me his “paystubs” made out of scraps of paper. They made little sense to me, partially because the handwriting was illegible and scrawling and partly because whatever deductions were marked were nonsensical.

It was a clear indication that he wasn’t getting paid what he was promised.

He was kind and offered me tomatillos, which I remember so vividly because in the midst of his wretched circumstances, he gave me something he should have kept for himself.

When I drove home that day, I cried.

I also remember talking in the FLOC office to a DACA recipient who is a second-generation farmworker and activist. She was sexually assaulted in the fields as a teenager. She told me something had to change, that women who were farmworkers were treated horribly.

At the time she was young, and my heart filled with this anger that I couldn’t quite name, all I knew was someone had to do something. 

I had made up my mind.

I was going to write this story. I was telling everyone about this injustice, and I thought, surely once people understood this profound abuse and exploitation on the soil of the land of the free, that maybe there would be a spark of change.

That is why I became a journalist to begin with, to tell the truth about the world and inspire people to change the injustices and embrace humanity.

I was naive.

When I turned in my first draft of the story, it was eviscerated. Comments like, “They knew what they signed up for,” and “How do you know this what they said, you don’t know Spanish,” were the go-tos from leadership. 

The story was killed and then purged from the server files. 

At the time I was outraged, and though I have lost my files and notes from that summer in 2014, I recount their stories from an imperfect memory. 

I could recount to you my outrage at the time, but there is no need. I didn’t begin working in anti-human trafficking advocacy until 2018, so now that I am in advocacy, I have the luxury of taking what I learned from them and my colleagues in the field to tell the story of exploitation in the fields of North Carolina.

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

So here it is:

The agricultural industry is booming in North Carolina. North Carolina is the leading producer of tobacco, poultry and sweet potatoes. North Carolina ranks second in the nation for hogs, trout, turkeys and Christmas tree production. All of this contributes a little less than $15 billion to the state’s economy, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. 

This is not something that anyone would find astounding. North Carolina was built on agriculture. One only needs to open a history book to see the impact of agriculture on this state and the whole of the south.  

But with the booming industry that feeds our state’s economy and literally puts affordable food on our tables, there is a dark side. 

That dark side, operating in the open, for the most part, is labor trafficking and labor exploitation in the fields and on the farms in this state.

This is not an indictment on farmers or the agricultural industry. 

It is important to note that most agricultural employers are not exploiting or trafficking their workers. It is the vulnerabilities inherent in the migrant farm work profession that lend themselves to a population that is easier for traffickers to manipulate. It is also important to understand that, in many cases, it isn’t the grower who is the trafficker, but rather the labor contractor. 

A labor contractor is what could be interpreted as the middle manager, supplying the grower with the necessary work force to complete harvest times.

According to “Labor Trafficking – What Local Governments Need to Know,” written by Margaret Henderson, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, and Nancy Hagan, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, “the circumstances of migrant farm work involve vulnerabilities that traffickers can exploit at any point in the labor chain. Agricultural laborers are not eligible for overtime per the Fair Labor Standards Act, and excessive work hours, as well as wage and hour violations, are common conditions of employment for them. The work is labor-intensive and typically relies on unskilled foreign-born labor.”

That characterization is true. The migrant farmworker from Mexico who gave me the tomatillos offered up his “pay stub” which was handwritten on a scrap piece of paper, showing pay “deductions” he did not understand and hours far less than he had worked.

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

Migrant farmworkers often lack legal documentation 

According to the 2013 study, “Indicators of Labor Trafficking Among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers” written by Kelle Barrick, Ph.D.,  Pamela K. Lattimore, Ph.D., Wayne Pitts, Ph.D., Sheldon X. Zhang, Ph.D., “A worker’s lack of legal status was the strongest and most consistent predictor of experiencing trafficking and other violations.”

The two men I referenced were undocumented workers.

These workers are threatened with deportations – which could be detrimental – their families are threatened or they are threatened.

The worker from Guatemala could not return home because of the heavy yoke of debt bondage. He mortgaged his home, if he returned, he would have no way to pay that mortgage and he and his family would become homeless. 

In “Indicators of Labor Trafficking Among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers,” personal stories the researchers were able to include:

“[A] 53-year-old Mexican worker reported that he had crossed the border approximately 20 times. Despite his experiences, the contractor who transported him from Florida to North Carolina this year forced him to pay all of his labor earnings for several weeks. Workers often refer to these types of exploitation as a ‘trata de blancas’ which is a colloquialism meaning the contractors are like pimps.”

“A 30-year-old man from Nayarit, Mexico reported that he was promised $9.75 an hour to work in tobacco but when he arrived in North Carolina, the only work available was in sweet potatoes for 45¢ a bucket.”

“Workers are aware of their vulnerability and one stated, “We do not complain because of our status. I have a big family to support and so, I’ll take anything because if I get deported my wife and children will have no one to support them.”

In the current political environment, the likelihood that an undocumented worker will come forward and ask for help is slim to none.

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

H-2A Guest Workers

An H-2A visa enables workers from another country to come to the United States for a limited time to work in agriculture. This visa is tied to a certain grower or labor contractor. As the worker’s legal status hinges on staying with the employer who holds the visa, when working conditions become exploitative and abusive, the worker is left with a choice. 

They could jump the visa and become undocumented and ineligible to work in the U.S. during the next agricultural season or they can remain in the exploitative or trafficking situation.

According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2017, there were 161,583 H-2A visas issued in the U.S. 

North Carolina is one of the top 10 states in the nation that uses the guest worker visa program.

Hagan, who also works with Project NO REST, said, “Most of the exploitation that rises to the level of human trafficking occurs by farm labor contractors. Farm labor contractors are seeing North Carolina as fertile ground. The companies that are operating here are quite large. Their reach is broad.”

In “Indicators of Labor Trafficking Among North Carolina Migrant Farmworkers,” personal stories the researchers were able to include:

“One respondent reported that the workers’ movements were restricted and that the grower did not allow them to ‘leave and do recreational things (clubs, drink, etc.) which might put [the workers] in danger. [The workers] were disciplined after one incident.’  Another worker said his, ‘contract states we cannot leave for recreation. They take us to grocery store on Sundays.’”

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

Companies convicted of visa fraud still eligible for guest worker visas 

Taken from “Human Trafficking on Temporary Work Visas,”

“A prime example of just how little oversight there is in the administration of guest worker visa programs is the case of one North Carolina labor broker, Craig Eury.

Until 2016, 24 Eury was listed on public documents as a director for both the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), a cooperative of nonprofits that helps farms in North Carolina recruit workers through the H-2A program, and the International Labor Management Corporation (ILMC), an agricultural labor recruitment business that helps clients find and bring foreign workers through the H-2A and H-2B programs.

In 2015, Eury was sentenced to 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct a government function and conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to published reports.

“International Labor Management was ordered in December to pay $1.12 million for defrauding the federal government by bringing guest workers to the United States for one job and sending them to another,” The Fayetteville Observer reported.

Additionally, according to the paper, “Eury pleaded guilty to the two charges in June.

He also had been charged with three counts of encouraging illegal aliens to enter the country, one count of fraudulently obtaining visas, 34 counts of money laundering, six counts of mail fraud, and four counts of wire fraud. Those charges were dropped under a plea agreement.”

Despite all of this, Eury and his associated companies still have not been barred by the U.S. Department of Labor from recruiting within the guest worker program as of March 2018.

Indeed, the NCGA received visas when Eury was still on the registration paperwork but subject to criminal complaint. The Department of Labor maintains a list of “[Ineligible Farm Labor Contractors] (,” but as of Spring 2018, none of them are on it. As of March 31, 2018, the NCGA is the number one recipient of H-2A certifications.”

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

Advocacy in Motion

Hagan has dedicated years in the service of improving farmworkers’ lives in North Carolina.

As part of the Project NO REST awareness work, in conjunction with Capital Broadcasting, Hagan said there was a PSA produced that focuses specifically on labor trafficking in farm work.

“Project NO REST created a 30 second PSA that was shown at Capital Broadcasting one of the vignettes involved an actor called Jorge,” Hagan said.

Check out Project NO REST’s PSA.

“A longer video was produced in Spanish and tells the story of Jorge and that he is exploited by the contractor. Project NO REST has also produced materials and pamphlets to distribute that are easy to read handouts [for farmworkers].”

Kathy Nuñez, case manager with Project FIGHT, said farmworker outreach is paramount in curbing this issue.

“Last year, we partnered with NC Farmworker Project to build [rapport] with farmworkers. We gave them information about human trafficking and gave them the number to call in case they need food, clothing or housing,” Nuñez said.

“We reached about 800 farmworkers last year. They had no idea that they had an option to not have to live the way they were living. Of course, there are other variables and they do have rights as H2A workers. They had no idea that they didn’t have to turn in their passports.”

Hagan has also done a lot of outreach work around farmworkers and the NC Growers Association. She has gone to Vass, N.C., where H2A farmworkers first touchdown on the soil of North Carolina to offer information to workers about their rights before they are taken to their respective properties. 

Hagan hopes to see continued awareness around labor trafficking and people across the state working together to improve farm worker conditions.

“I hope to see continued and increasing awareness around the people who grow our food, tend our crops, harvest and grow our crops,” Hagan said.

“Pretty much anywhere in the state that isn’t urban people are living near farmworkers. It is important that we stop seeing people as other, but see each other as ‘we.’ Let’s look at our commonalities across faith communities, in health clinics, even shoppers at Walmart, say hello to those workers and acknowledge the humanity of everyone. Human trafficking dehumanizes people and creates them into commodities, and as individuals, we can push against it.” 

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

Go to the NC Farmworker Institute

The NC Farmworker Institute is a full day of education geared around the issues that farmworkers face. You can go to the institute, learn and network with organizations and advocates working to improve the conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina. 

“The Farmwokers Institute is really for anyone and geared to people working with farmworkers,” Nuñez said.

Nuñez said farm workers are an integral part of the institute, and partnering is a key way to address farmworker needs. Interpretation will be available.


Go to the Give Food a Face Gala

Click to get tickets.

(This article is originally from the website of NC Stop Human Trafficking.)

NC Field is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and one of its programs, Give Food a Face, needs support from advocates like you! The “Give Food a Face” campaign focuses on raising public awareness about the injustices behind the industrial agricultural system. 

Give Food a Face focuses on raising public awareness about the injustices behind the industrial agricultural system. 


Melinda Sampson is the community outreach coordinator at NC Stop Human Trafficking. Email her at

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