This article appeared in the Toronto Star in 1985.
Call it involuntary servitude, illegal bondage... call it what you will.
But when a human being, with or without proper working papers, is forced to work against his will, under threat of physical violence, you have enslavement, pure and simple.
It is 118 years since the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the United States, and this wicked practice endures.
For almost a year, a House of Representatives subcommittee on labor standards has been hearing testimony on the federal government's failure to adequately investigate numerous reports of migrant farm workers being held in illegal bondage and peonage in remote parts of the Southwest and Midwest United States.
Vincent Trivelli, a professional staff member of the subcommittee, told me that 24 separate complaints about one farm were not investigated by the justice of labor departments until subcommittee began its investigation.
At a hearing on Sept. 23, a Roman Catholic nun told congressmen that since 1980 she has been operating an improvised “underground railroad”--an escape route for “slaves” in southwest Virginia whose pleas for help had been ignored by local law enforcement officials.
One of those rescued by Sister Adele Della Valle, 47-year-old Horace Taft, gave this chilling account of his experience picking sweet potatoes after being recruited and transported south from his native Philadelphia:
“It was just horrible, the things I seen at those camps. I see men beat with rubber hoses. I seen women beat. There was always someone guarding and watching you. You couldn't get away because they were sitting out there with guns.”
“It is my conviction,” testified Sister Valle, “that the men who begged us to (help them) leave did so out of desperation to get away.”
How it works
Sister Valle cited the inhumane conditions under which farmworkers are being held—long hours, appalling food, no heat in winter, no medical care—and she declared that the system which permits workers to become indebted to their employers from the moment they arrive at a work camp is “tantamount to slavery.”
This is how the system works:
Legal and illegal migrant farm workers are recruited by a middleman, a “coyote,” who transports them to remote farms. The coyote is paid a flat rate (about $200) by the farm owner or crew leader for each new recruit. The moment the workers reach their destination—most notorious are farm camps in Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina and Florida—they become indebted to their new boss for the inflated cost of their transportation.
For 16-hour work days, seven days a week, they are paid a piece-rate wage that usually falls far short of the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage, it itself illegal. But because the workers have been grossly overcharged, on credit, for meals lodging, cigarettes and liquor, the balance owed them is in the red—so they remain continually in debt to their crew leader.
Any attempt to leave the camp is met with threats of physical violence. While working, they are watched by armed guards. There have been cases where dissatisfied workers have been set upon by dogs, locked up or put in chains. Some who have escaped have found local sheriffs unsympathetic; often they are returned to the custody of their crew leader.
The view of some North Carolina sheriffs is summed by sheriff's deputy J.P. Thornton of Johnson County: “99.9 percent of the migrants are bums, drunks, winos, been burned up on drugs or else are running from the law, and they aren't going to stay anywhere else than in that environment.”
Steven Nagler, executive director of the U.S. Migrant Legal Action Organization, estimates that up to 100,000 agricultural workers are held in illegal bondage in the Land of the Free. A former Peace Corps volunteer and civil rights lawyer, Nagler has been monitoring reports of slavery among farm workers for 3 ½ years.
His greatest lobbying triumph came last June when the North Carolina legislature felt compelled to enact state anti-slavery legislation. The new statute makes the holding of another in involuntary servitude punishable by a five-year prison term and a hefty fine. This followed the federal conviction of two Americans in 1982 in New Bern, N.C., for “strong-arm kidnapping” and holding farm workers in involuntary servitude on a farm camp in Nash County.
Brothers Dennis and Richard Warren had recruited migrant workers and unemployed street people in cities along the eastern seaboard. One of their recruits, Robert Anderson, later collapsed and died in the fields when forced to work after complaining that he felt ill. Ironically, the Warren brothers are black. Both received long prison terms.
There have been similar convictions in other states; about 35 cases are pending in Florida, Arkansas, Texas, and in Michigan, and even in affluent Beverly Hills, California.
In January, 1982, FBI agents acting on a tip-off raided several homes in Beverly Hills and uncovered what they alleged to be a slave ring. Ed Best, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said that at least 30 Indonesians had been sold into servitude as domestics for $3,000 each. They had been recruited by a travel agent in Jakarta and brought in to the United States under false pretences by slavers who confiscated their documents. They were expected to remain with their “owners” for a minimum of two years, without payment.
An agent of the U.S. Immigration Service, Ambrose Laverty, said that those who tried to run away were “threatened with bodily harm.” Said Laverty: “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Los Angeles Times quoted one woman as saying, when served by subpoena by the FBI, “All my neighbors have illegal aliens working for them.” She had paid $6,000 to a Los Angeles “employment agency,” which she declined to name, for two illegal domestics.
Since 1980 there have been 25 federal slavery convictions, Susan King, a young justice department lawyer, told me that slavery in the United States is wide-ranging. But she pinpointed domestic servants, migrant farm workers and members of religious cults as the most vulnerable. King said that her most recent case, in which arrests were made, involved dairy farmers who enslaved elderly retarded men.
King and a colleague, Albert Glenn, constitute the involuntary servitude department. Together, they appear to have their hands full.