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Opinion

Enslaved Workers Are Making Your Breakfast: Wisconsin Confronts Labor Trafficking | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner

On Friday, a coalition of advocates for migrant workers and state officials announced a $5.1 million grant to fight labor trafficking in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee, where the coalition made the announcement, from the headquarters of United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS), was identified not long ago as a center for human trafficking in the U.S. “We have made positive strides over the years,” said Lupe Martinez, president and chief executive officer of UMOS, acknowledging the award from the Howard G. Buffett foundation for the group’s efforts to eradicate “this most heinous crime.”

Mariana Rodriguez, director of UMOS’ Latina Resource Center, estimated that the group has assisted 100 victims of labor trafficking in Wisconsin over the last 12 years. “It’s probably more, because often, some of the victims just choose not to cooperate, they just want to go home. And so and that’s what we do, we help them to go home safely.”

A front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday underscored the urgency of the problem. Headlined “Alone and exploited, migrant children work brutal jobs across the U.S.,” the report detailed the exploitation of migrant children by some of the biggest companies in our country. Kids as young as 15 work packing Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Flaming Hot Cheetos for the processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions. Twelve-year-olds work dangerous jobs in roofing and construction. Underage meat processors labor on high-speed assembly lines, falling asleep in school or dropping out altogether to work around the clock. The list of companies employing underage workers in dirty, exhausting jobs includes Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, J. Crew, Ben & Jerry’s and Fruit of the Loom.

“These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation: Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country,” the Times reports.

The children in the Times story are in the U.S. legally, awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims and working to support impoverished families back home in Central America. Some have sponsors who lied to them to get them here and are now stealing their wages. Their desperation, after fleeing countries where economies have collapsed, has become a key ingredient in U.S. companies’ profits. Chew on that for a moment.

This is the dark side of the story I explored in my book “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers.”

Immigrants, most of them undocumented, now perform 80% of the labor on Wisconsin dairy farms. There is a fascinating, human story in the relationship between the Mexican workers who come here to earn money to build homes and businesses back in Mexico and the farmers who depend on their labor on Wisconsin dairy farms. I traveled with a group of dairy farmers who visit their workers’ villages in Mexico every year, admiring what they’ve built with the money they made milking cows. These two groups of rural people from opposite sides of the border, under pressure from the same global economic forces beyond their control, have formed a bond as they’ve come to rely on each other to survive.

But if some migrant workers are able to build wealth for their families back home by taking jobs Americans don’t want, a growing number are trapped in a system designed to exploit them in what amounts to slavery.

If you think people are surprised that trafficking happens in Milwaukee, imagine the surprise of people in rural Marathon County in central Wisconsin, who say, ‘That doesn’t happen here! That happens in big cities.’

– Jane Graham Jennings of The Women’s Community in Wausau

In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice has recognized the problem and set up an office to deal specifically with labor exploitation.

The human trafficking bureau within the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) has been working on labor trafficking cases since 2017. The $5 million grant to fight labor trafficking awarded to a coalition of law enforcement and advocacy groups in Wisconsin is a “significant step forward” in that effort, Attorney General Josh Kaul said Friday. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul at a press conference announcing a $5.1 million grant to fight labor trafficking | Wisconsin Examiner photo

“Labor trafficking cases are time intensive. They’re lengthy cases. They require significant resources,” Kaul said. Through the grant, DOJ has hired two new investigators to take on labor trafficking cases, one based in Milwaukee and one in Eau Claire, and is assigning an assistant attorney general to work with victim advocates to fight this crime.

Victims of labor trafficking are isolated in Wisconsin communities where most local residents have no idea about what’s going on in their backyard.

“If you think people are surprised that trafficking happens in Milwaukee, imagine the surprise of people in rural Marathon County in central Wisconsin, who say, ‘That doesn’t happen here! That happens in big cities,’” Jane Graham Jennings of The Women’s Community, a center based in Wausau, said during the press conference.

“We are already working with people who are being trafficked in the farms,” Graham Jennings continued. Her group has been focused on helping Spanish-speaking survivors of agricultural labor trafficking. “The survivors are terrified,” she said. “The lies that they’re told, their fear for their status, their fear for their families back in their home countries, all of the bribes, all of the threats, all of the fear that they’re living under — we can help them understand that when law enforcement comes to talk to them, law enforcement in this country is their friend, law enforcement is here to help them, not to harm them. And that can be a really hard shift in the minds of survivors. They’re just trying to live. So they don’t recognize often that they are being trafficked.”

Of course, law enforcement has not always been a friend to undocumented workers. ICE raids in rural and urban areas have terrorized immigrant workers and their families throughout the state.

During the Friday press conference, Erik Bryce, resident agent for the Department of Homeland Security’s Wisconsin investigations unit (HSI), based in Milwaukee, was introduced as an “informal partner” in the labor trafficking coalition project.

“HSI labor exploitation investigations focus on our nation’s critical labor infrastructures, reducing illegal employment, protecting employment opportunities for the country’s lawful workforce,” Bryce said. 

The idea of reducing illegal employment on Wisconsin dairy farms seems absurd.. There is no visa program for year-round, low-skilled agricultural workers. So about 80% of dairy workers are undocumented. If they were all sent home, the industry would collapse overnight. A more sensible idea would be to recognize our dependence on these workers and create a visa program that allows them to be here legally. Until that happens, they remain vulnerable to exploitation.

Pressed on whether victims of labor trafficking can feel confident coming forward without fear of deportation, Rodriguez of UMOS pointed to the group’s long history of providing services to migrant workers. UMOS has worked to help many victims of labor trafficking who are out-of-status because of an expired visa or who have no visa at all. “The idea that because they’re undocumented or they’re out-of-status, that they’re going to be detained and then deported, that has not been our experience,” she said. 

Kaul also emphasized the victim-centered approach that prioritizes going after unscrupulous employers and traffickers, not the victims of trafficking. DOJ’s relationship with advocacy groups is crucial for getting people to come forward, he said. So is the relationship with the federal government, because of the myriad federal crimes involved in trafficking. Bryce reeled off some of those crimes, including human smuggling, money laundering, document fraud and human rights abuses.

Federal anti-labor-trafficking efforts aim to bring “corporate officers, managers, and contractors who knowingly hire, exploit, or utilize forced labor” to justice, Bryce said. “We’ll continue to work with these partners here today to describe, identify, protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.”

The human costs are impossible to ignore.

“There is a lot of abuse nowadays and people do not understand or know, slavery happens nowadays and people are not aware. Thank you for supporting us.”

– Miguel Antonio Lopez, a victim of labor trafficking in Wisconsin

Last week ProPublica reported on the tragic death of an 8-year-old boy on a dairy farm in Dane County. His father brought him here from Nicaragua, desperate to earn money to support his family. He was run over by another employee who was driving a skid machine — a dangerous piece of farm equipment he was operating for the first time, which had been poorly maintained and lacked basic safety features. Unsafe and exploitative conditions are becoming commonplace on Wisconsin farms. Miguel Antonio Lopez speaks through a translator about his experience as a victim of labor trafficking in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Examiner photo

At the Friday press conference, Miguel Antonio Lopez, who was a victim of labor trafficking, gave a statement, which an UMOS staffer, standing beside him, translated into English and read aloud.

He described coming to the U.S. from his home in Puebla, Mexico on an H2A temporary agricultural work visa. As soon as he arrived his work contractor seized his passport, he said. “They always demanded more and more production without raising our wages or paying overtime. We were not able to drink water, or take a break. We were verbally abused and psychologically manipulated. They abused our vulnerability. … The conditions were horrible. We were never paid what we earned.”

Antonio Lopez expressed his gratitude to UMOS for helping him escape.

“There is a lot of abuse nowadays,” he said, “and people do not understand or know, slavery happens nowadays and people are not aware. Thank you for supporting us.”

A lot of factors contribute to the problem of labor trafficking: a broken immigration system, a recent drive by the Biden Administration to empty overcrowded detention centers, which has led government officials to turn a blind eye to the trafficking of Central American children, according to the Times, a powerful push from countries where economies have collapsed and people are willing to go to extreme lengths just to survive. But what we have not acknowledged in all our national chatter about the border and immigration is the hunger of U.S. employers for workers willing to work long hours for low pay. 

We need to confront our own complicity. The food we eat, the buildings where we work and live, the roads we drive on, are all made by an increasingly desperate workforce — including trafficked children.

Addressing the problem requires real sensitivity — not victim-blaming anti-immigrant rhetoric or cracking down on the workers themselves.

“As we work to fight human trafficking. We’re all committed to working with survivors who want to work with law enforcement to ensure that cases are investigated,” Kaul said at the UMOS press conference. “We’re all committed to holding traffickers accountable where we can. And we are all committed to making Wisconsin a state that is inhospitable to human trafficking and labor trafficking.” 

Good for Wisconsin for leading the way.

This story was written by Ruth Conniff, Editor-in-chief, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.