Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Criminalising traffickers is an alibi for state-produced vulnerability

The US State Department argues that imprisoning human traffickers protects vulnerable farmworkers, but misses the fact that migrant worker vulnerability stems from the precarious conditions the state itself creates.

Lyndsey P. Beutin
19 November 2015

A migrant worker picks tomatoes in Fort Blackmore, VA. Laura Elizabeth Pohl for Bread for the World/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH unveiled a new exhibition in 2010 titled Invisible: Slavery Today, in the hopes that it would make the history of nineteenth-century abolitionism more relevant to today’s visitors. The exhibit, designed in collaboration with several prominent anti-trafficking advocacy organisations, depicts five types of trafficking victims. One of these is ‘Mariano’, an undocumented farmworker who was smuggled into the United States from Guatemala on the promise of a job and a better life. A critical reading of ‘Mariano’s story’ reveals the ways in which punitive, carceral solutions are framed as ‘abolition’, as well as how US Government and US State Department narratives are reinforced by non-profit advocacy organisations and museums.

Migrant farm labour has increasingly become part of the narrative of how and where trafficking happens in the United States. Mariano’s character is partially drawn from the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker-led, grassroots organisation that has successfully brought lawsuits against growers on enslavement charges. CIW is one of the few farmworker organisations that has adopted the language of ‘modern day slavery’ to describe the most extreme cases of brutality against migrants. Official acknowledgement of such abuse constitutes an important note of self-critique amid the State Department’s largely coercive pursuits to criminalise trafficking in other countries. Yet, the dynamics of labour trafficking remain represented in a good (the state) versus evil (individual traffickers) dramatic frame. This emphasises the violence inflicted on individual migrants by individual smugglers. It also downplays state violence and state responsibility for the basic conditions inhabited by both sets of precarious individuals. This opens up rhetorical space to paradoxically rely on immigration, police, defence, and state department officials to ‘rescue’ undocumented workers from the dangers the state itself creates.

Mariano’s story

Mariano is introduced to visitors as a migrant agriculture labourer who works long hours in poor conditions. According to the exhibition panel, Mariano is in this situation because of the lack of jobs in his home country:

Migrant labourers, like Mariano, are especially vulnerable to becoming enslaved. Desperate for work, they pay to be smuggled into countries where jobs are available. Employers can exploit these labourers by stealing their pay, coercing long hours of work, and keeping them in squalid conditions.

This introduction to the plight of migrant farmworkers has the potential to very accurately unravel the structural conditions that make these sentences true. Agriculturalists in Mexico and Central America have been particularly desperate for jobs since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gutted national seed and fertilizer subsidies to small, cooperative, and subsistence farmers in Mexico. That same treaty did not ban domestic subsidies to American growers, which allows them to continue to sell their product on the “free” market below the cost of production. Unable to compete, Mexican farmers crossed the border in search of jobs. The United States facilitates this border crossing with the H-2A visa programme for temporary agricultural labourers. Workers under this programme are granted limited protections and must remain with their sponsoring farm, while sponsors must provide housing for the workers.

There are, of course, many more men and women in need of work than there are H-2A visas or sponsoring farms. In addition, the limitations built into the H-2A visa make the programme extremely undesirable for many migrants. These factors, combined with the fact that there are few—if any—legal ways for lower class Mexicans and Central Americans to obtain permanent residence and citizenship in the United States, compel the majority of such individuals to cross without temporary status or other types of documentation.

The narrative told in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s exhibition, however, does not go into the history and effects of American economic policy, free trade programmes, and tiered immigration laws. Instead of examining these enduring structures, which were engineered by the United States and which maintain migrants’ vulnerabilities, it individualises Mariano’s story and re-casts the state as the hero-protector. The panel reads:

Mariano told his story to investigators. Cesar [his trafficker] was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Mariano received a temporary visa for his testimony against Cesar. He still picks tomatoes but he is no longer a SLAVE.

The state investigators are figured as benevolent protectors, even though undocumented workers are actually extremely vulnerable to police coercion and intimidation due to their status. As Alicia Peters demonstrates in Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law, they very rarely receive documentation-based protections from the state in return for their testimony (Peters 2015). The crime of smuggling is represented as an evil choice by bad people that can be eradicated through punishment. Incarceration is held up as a natural resolution to socioeconomic problems, which have in fact been created by the state.

Selective condemnation naturalises everyday violence

Cesar’s arrest does nothing to keep Mariano safe in the fields or more financially secure in his home country. The panel suggests that the state cares for Mariano by providing him with a legal status, which one would think prevents him from being exploited by employers without redress. However, the legal working conditions for H-2A workers are abysmal and even the low standards often go unenforced.

For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) excludes all farmworkers from overtime pay regardless of hours worked, and its federal minimum wage provisions are rampantly ignored by growers without consequence. How, then, does a temporary visa and an incarcerated perpetrator release Mariano from his enslavement? He is still subject to the structures that create his conditions. As a tomato-picker in the United States, he remains vulnerable to terrible working conditions, and is either lowly-paid or not paid at all. Why is one condition rendered as slavery and the other not?

By suggesting that only the most extreme forms of smuggling are the problem, the everyday exploitation of migrant farm work becomes naturalised. Emphasising the violence of smuggling as perpetrated by individuals obscures state-sanctioned and state-inflicted violence. A panel describes Mariano’s “escape”:

The work was brutal and exhausting. Anything that prevented Mariano from working resulted in beatings, knife slashing, or chain shackles. Worst of all was the isolation: no family or friends knew where he was. One day in 2007, Mariano was locked inside his home, a truck. Seeing a hole in the roof, he punched until it was big enough to wriggle through and then escaped.

In this rendering, physical confinement and physical abuse are the problems. The evil acts of the smuggler are the barriers to freedom, which is defined as the return of mobility and the absence of immediate physical abuse. Structural freedom remains unaddressed: neither the freedom to cross borders safely and legally nor the freedom to be safe after “escape” are problematised. Turning structural violence and exclusion into the sadistic tendencies of a villain becomes the state’s ultimate alibi. Even though the state creates the conditions necessary for precarious and exploitable migrant labour, the discourse of enslavement allows the state to present its carceral solutions—putting ‘bad’ people in prison—as ‘abolition’. The invisibility of the role of state violence is aided by sensationalist representations of interpersonal violence in the museum’s exhibit.

In representing Mariano’s story as such, the museum’s curators and their non-profit collaborators support the state’s approach to ‘ending’ trafficking, which does nothing to protect labourers but does legitimize the growing carceral logic of the United States government. By extension, the museum obscures the realities of present-day labour exploitation and perpetuates the alibi of the state. In doing so, it misses an opportunity to compare and contrast the chattel slavery of previous centuries—a historic form of agricultural subsidy—with more contemporary methods of maximising agricultural profits for owners of capital.

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