THE BLOG

Farm Workers Walk Fine Line Between Exploitation and Forced Labor

02/23/2015 04:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Tomatoes were once grown by indigenous people in the Andes and then exported to Europe and North America by Spanish colonizers. And while the delicious fruit has found a home in many parts of the world, many of the workers who pick it have not. Many are irregular immigrants, tolerated because they provide cheap labor, but not welcomed.

One of the most prolific tomato growing regions is the state of Florida in the United States, the area focused on by film director Sanjay Rawal and actress/producer Eva Longoria in their film Food Chains. It tells the story of a group of courageous migrant farm workers resisting their exploitation.

It sounds like a struggle fought by many workers across the world, and in particular farmworkers. They are often low-skilled, seasonal and unorganized. In the U.S., over half of them are estimated to be irregular immigrants and hence risk deportation if they complain about their exploitation.

In addition, the National Labor Relations Act excludes agricultural workers from the right to join trade unions and to bargain collectively, and only a few U.S. states have enacted legislation to that effect. With the ready supply of largely unskilled migrant labor and without the presence of trade unions, wages are kept artificially low. If combined with threats, intimidation, illegal wage manipulations, debt bondage or other coercive practices, such exploitation can turn into forced labor.

Globally, agriculture is one of the high-risk sectors into which workers are trafficked for the purpose of forced labor. According to the International Labor Organization's most recent estimate, illicit profits generated by forced labor amount to $150 billion per year, of which an estimated $9 billion is made in agriculture.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the heroes in Food Chains, has pressured major retailers to support the Fair Food Program, which has helped prevent slavery-like practices on U.S. farms. Their campaign has contributed to a wage increase for farmworkers, after major retailers agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to stop buying tomatoes from farms with human rights violations.

But more is needed to protect the rights of workers, especially if they are migrants. According to the recently adopted ILO Protocol on Forced Labor, 2014, states should take measures to support due diligence by the private and public sectors to respond to the risk of forced labor and to protect workers, in particular migrant workers, from fraudulent recruitment practices.

There are lessons to be learned from the success of the Coalition's campaign for fair wages: ultimately, workers themselves will drive change and their collective voice is a powerful catalyst for change. Workers' organizations need to be recognized as important players in preventing forced labor and in empowering workers at risk. Another lesson is that business is part of the solution. U.S. food chains are highly integrated with a handful of large firms being able to influence farm-level production, prices and working conditions. Dialoguing with key firms in these chains while raising public awareness can bring about positive changes in farm workers' rights and working conditions.

The International Labor Organization is the UN Agency for the world of work. It sets international labor standards and promotes rights at work and decent employment opportunities.