I’ll never forget something that advocate and former farmworker Leticia Zavala said to me during an interview.
“There is slavery in the fields of North Carolina.”
She said it almost in passing, as part of a larger laundry list of abusive and deadly conditions experienced by farmworkers in the state as part of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, a guest worker program overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that allows American employers to temporarily hire migrant workers to perform agricultural work. A whopping 90% of these workers hail from Mexico. This is not surprising, given that the H-2A program is an iteration of the Bracero Program, a bilateral agreement with Mexico that, from 1942 to 1964, allowed for the temporary entry of millions of migrants to perform agricultural labor in the U.S. The program was ultimately abolished because of systemic wage theft, abuse, and exploitation. Lee G. Williams, the DOL official in charge at the time, described the Bracero Program as “legalized slavery.”
As a farmworker organizer, Zavala sees it all: the toll that backbreaking and dangerous agricultural labor takes on workers, the substandard and unhealthy living conditions they are forced to endure, the labor trafficking, starvation, and the all-too-common stolen wages. And there’s also the “modern-day slavery.” Along with other preferred euphemisms used in agriculture—forced labor, involuntary servitude, and indentured servitude—“modern-day slavery” simply means slavery that is happening now, today, the results of which can be found in the produce aisles of countless American grocery stores.
Government officials, elected leaders, and American employers regularly downplay the depth and breadth of abuse in agriculture. When pushed, the powerful often cite a number of complicated reasons the standards in agriculture remain low and yet somehow seemingly impossible to enforce. But the reason why slavery persists is not hard to explain or understand: In the U.S., there is a direct and unbroken line from the economic conditions developed to protect chattel slavery to the legal structures that allow for the abuse and exploitation of migrant farmworkers today.
Plantation slavery shaped American agriculture, meaning the industry was shaped by the white ruling class’s creation of racial divides and hierarchies to maximize profits. When slavery was abolished in 1865, the machinery of white supremacy continued in full force. The sharecropping tenant system that followed the Civil War was slavery by another name. Black families were forced into massive debt to live in the same homes, work on the same land, and make a profit for the same people who previously enslaved them.
During the New Deal era, when laws changed to create labor protections for workers, agricultural and domestic labor became proxies for race. White Southern legislators fought to exclude Black workers from receiving benefits and protections because their Southern political economy relied on their subordination. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation enshrined racial discrimination into law by creating occupational and geographic classifications that excluded agricultural and domestic jobs performed by Black people, denying them minimum wage and overtime provisions. Agricultural workers were also excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, making it almost impossible for them to organize and collectively bargain.
These racist exclusions remain intact and ever-present in our agricultural economy, which continues to rely on a racialized workforce. At the start of World War I, American employers began turning to Mexican workers to fill the agricultural labor void. Soon, the Bracero Program birthed the H-2A program. The Latinos who now form the backbone of our agricultural industry—including the undocumented immigrants who make up a majority of the workforce—are still excluded from federal protections. This includes the right to unionize. Less than 1% of the nation’s least powerful, most exploited workforce belong to a union.
The deplorable and dangerous conditions we see in agriculture are baked into the industry and labor laws—and the consequences are dire. Farmworkers forced into slavery is a common enough phenomenon that the worker-based human rights organization the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has an anti-slavery program that helps uncover, investigate, and assist in prosecuting agricultural slavery operations. Laura Germino, a founding member of the CIW who helped establish the CIW’s Anti-Slavery Campaign, has noted that modern-day slavery cases “don’t happen in a vacuum.”
“They only occur in degraded labor environments, ones that are fundamentally, systematically exploit[at]ive,” Germino said. “In industries where the labor force is conti[n]gent, day-haul, with sub-poverty wages, no benefits, no right to overtime, no fight to organize—that’s where you see slavery taking root.”
Slavery in the H-2A program is far too common, and few cases garner the same level of attention and headlines as Georgia’s shocking Operation Blooming Onion. According to the federal indictment, migrants from Mexico and Central America were forced to dig for onions with their bare hands under the threat of gun violence, earning just 20 cents for each bucket harvested. At least two people died from heat exposure on the job, and one woman was repeatedly raped. One of the victims’ labor camps was surrounded by electric fencing, and they were otherwise held in cramped and unsanitary mobile homes with raw sewage leaks and no access to food or safe drinking water.
It’s no secret that the H-2A program has long been a vehicle for human trafficking and slavery. Last year, it was barely a blip on the news radar when Florida labor contractor Bladimir Moreno was sentenced to 10 years in prison for using the H-2A program to traffick Mexican workers into the U.S. to perform “forced labor.” The produce from enslaved workers was sold by major chains like Walmart, Kroger, and Sam’s Club.
But exploitation and abuse should not have to rise to the level of slavery to garner attention. Routinely across the U.S. there is news of another farmworker death or another lawsuit filed on behalf of workers who were trafficked and forced to live in deplorable conditions. Farmworkers, advocates, attorneys, and other experts have spent decades sounding the alarm—providing evidence, recommendations, reports, and testimony. They have hoped against hope that those in power will actually listen and adopt commonsense recommendations that would help alleviate the egregious abuse and exploitation that are all too common in the agricultural industry.
Why do we allow these conditions to persist? Because the “success” of our agricultural industry hinges on the subordination of agricultural workers. Advances made by labor organizers, migrant workers, Black-led economic justice efforts, and progressive politicians are thwarted by powerful agricultural and business lobbies hell bent on returning to systems of mass exploitation and harm. When an entire industry is built to maximize profits on the backs of a racialized workforce, the U.S. will always choose capitalism—no matter the cost.
The March Continues is a Prism project highlighting the legacy of the March on Washington and the inextricable relationship between labor and racial justice in the U.S. Prism looks at everything from prison labor, to Black women and their labor organizing in the South, to chattel slavery and its pervasive legacy and replacements. The March Continues because it must, and we’re here to report on it.