(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece comes to us from Luz E. Nagle, Professor of Law at Florida’s Stetson University College of Law. If you have legal questions or issues you’d like to see addressed here, let us know by clicking here.)


In 1999, a victim advocate working for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office was called to a residence in Immokalee, FL to assist in interviewing a girl from Guatemala who had been taken into protective custody following a domestic dispute.

A member of a remote indigenous community, she explained how she had been taken by a man, José Tecum, across the United States to end up as a defacto slave in Tecum’s home, forced to have sex with him, and forced to give Tecum the paychecks she earned as a farm laborer in order to pay off the debt bondage he imposed on her.

Tecum was subsequently arrested and charged with kidnapping, slavery, immigration violations, and fraud and misuse of visas.  Little did anyone know at the time that U.S. v. Tecum would become a landmark federal human trafficking case that would bring awareness to severe abuses of migrant laborers in farming communities across the United States.[1]

While statistics on labor trafficking are notoriously imprecise due to many factors, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking and forced servitude comprise the second largest criminal enterprise in the world after drug trafficking.[2]

Almost 25 Million Victims Of Forced Labor

The International Labor Organization estimates that some 24.9 million people are victims of forced labor,[3] which generates $150.2 billion in annual profits for organized crime and other actors that exploit workers who do not understand their rights, distrust the authorities, and are fearful of trying to escape their situations.  Sadly, the ILO also believes that one in four victims of forced labor are children.

Unfortunately, labor trafficking receives less attention than sex trafficking from government, law enforcement, the media, and anti-trafficking NGOs.  Labor trafficking is less well detected and less salacious for raising public awareness, and is closely linked to businesses and industries that comprise the formal economy.  Labor trafficking is also rife with public and private corruption, which adds an additional layer of criminal conduct that is difficult to investigate and prosecute, because the profit earned from using slave labor rather than paid employees is a powerful incentive for keeping it quiet.

Labor trafficking occurs in several work sectors, the primary ones being in domestic services, construction, food and hospitality, personal services (nail salons, massage parlors), agribusiness, and the commercial fishing industry.  Labor trafficking mirrors traditional business models of supply and demand in which the supply of workers moves from impoverished source countries to developing and industrialized countries where there is critical demand for cheap labor.  The following table illustrates this distribution of labor servitude worldwide:[4]

Labor Trafficking in Agriculture

The commercial farming sector in the United States is increasingly impacted by migrant workers and trafficking victims who are subjected to forced servitude.  Some farm owners and corporate farm executives either do not know or do not care that corrupt labor contractors are placing trafficking victims in farming operations where they are subjected to highly abusive conditions.

Trafficked farm workers receive little or no pay, work extremely long hours often in dangerous conditions, live in squalor and work in unhealthy environments, have little or no access to health care or proper nutrition, have little or no freedom of movement, and are subjected to physical and mental abuse by their handlers.  Many work under debt bondage arrangements so harsh that they can never earn enough money to pay off their obligations to the criminal contractors and labor brokers that placed them into their farm work.

Many of the food products we consume are produced at some level by forced labor. Much of the chocolate is grown and harvested by slave labor on plantations in Western Africa, the tomatoes in our imported marinara sauce may have been grown and harvested by Nigerian workers trafficked into Italy on debt bondage arrangements.

A significant amount of truck crops from Mexico and Latin America are produced by forced labor including men women and children.[5]  Here in the United States, the government has held some farm labor brokers responsible for forced servitude arrangements in farms and food processing facilities.[6]

Management Can’t Always Be Aware

In Ohio several years ago, a farm labor contractor ran a smuggling pipeline for farm laborers between Guatemala and the United States.[7]  He managed to get three Guatemalan minors released from federal immigration custody and forced them to work on egg farms outside Columbus.  Following a modus operandi that is typical of forced farm labor operations, the contractor took the teens and other smuggled workers in a van before dawn each day to the farms where they worked until long after dark.

The contractor threatened his victims with physical violence, housed them in rundown trailers, took their pay, and in some cases forced family members back in Guatemala to sign over deeds for their property as payment for transporting and employing the boys.  He even promised the family members that the boys would go to school in the United States, which of course never happened.

The Ohio case illustrates how these operations function.  According to court records:

“The teens were put to work at Trillium Farms, which relied on a contractor, one of the people charged in the case, to recruit and hire the workers.  Trillium, which produces more than two billion eggs per year at various farms around central Ohio, has not been charged and says it was unaware of what was happening with the contractor and the workers.”[8]

In large mega farming operations, owners, executives, and managers cannot always be aware of what is happening at the worker level, yet they do need to scrutinize their supply chains for labor abuses.  As a business model used nationwide for decades, large-scale farming relies on labor contractors to supply the workforce needed to harvest and process food products for the US and global markets.  Regardless, agribusiness executives can no longer plead ignorance of what is happening on their farms.  Protecting vulnerable workers is not only ethical but doing so guards against reputational, legal, and financial risks, holds the supply chain accountable, and mitigates business risks.


[1] U.S. v. Tecum, No. 2:00-cr-00005-JES (jmt. entered Feb. 8, 2001), aff’d 48 Fed. Appx. 739 (11th Cir. 2002).  Tecum was subsequently convicted on six criminal counts and sentenced to 108 months in prison plus fines.  The Tecum case was instrumental in passage of legislation creating the T visa (nonimmigrant status) in 2000 for foreign victims of human trafficking to receive temporary residency in the United States and other protections in exchange for cooperating in criminal investigations and prosecutions.  The T-Visa also established a path to permanent residency in the United States.  Choz was among the first trafficking victims in the United States to receive a T visa.  For more information on the T visa program, see Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status, Dep’t Homeland Sec., Citizenship & Immigration Servs. (Oct. 3, 2011),  For additional discussion of Tecum, see

[2] Human Trafficking is a crime that entails the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines human trafficking as:

  1. a) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  2. b) 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. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(9)).

[3] ILO, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage 10 (2017),—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf.

[4] ILO, Statistics on Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking,–en/index.htm.

[5] Several Mexican Megafarms Supplying U.S. Market Are Rife With Labor Abuses, NPR, Dec. 10, 2014,

[6] For a discussion of several case studies, see Human Rights Watch, Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States 7 (2004),, and also U.S. E.E.O.C. v. Global Horizons, Inc., 2014 WL 800597 (D. Hawai’i Feb. 28, 2014), and Feds file human-trafficking suit against farm labor contractor, CNN, Apr. 21, 2011,

[7] U.S. v. Castillo-Serrano, No. 3:15-cr-00024-JGC, 2016 WL 3362494 (S.D. Ohio June 17, 2016).  See People smuggler forced teen migrants from Guatemala into egg farm work, The Guardian, Aug. 24, 2015,

[8] Id.

Leave a Reply.