Hidden in Plain Sight

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How low wages, brutal working conditions, and laws hostile to organizing, make Atlanta and surrounding areas ripe for labor trafficking.

Atlanta is often considered the capital of the new south and of Black America. In the nation’s mind, Atlanta is a civil rights success story, consistently topping lists of places where African Americans are doing best. It’s true that Atlanta has one of the largest populations of high-income Black families in the country. At the same time, for many Atlantans, being Black still generally means being poor and overpoliced. And, today, rapidly growing populations of immigrants and refugees are joining Atlanta’s low wage workforce and have become an equally important part of Atlanta’s story of workers’ historical and present day vulnerability to exploitation.

We know that labor trafficking flourishes where degraded conditions exist – where the industry norm virtually requires employers to prey upon vulnerable populations for cheap labor, and especially where the infrastructure to bring cases of severe labor exploitation to light is lacking or barred. The environment in and around Metro Atlanta is especially ripe with these troubling indicators, including some of the highest concentrations of workers marginalized by immigration status or involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as state-level policies that undermine workers’ ability to create sustainable labor unions and to improve conditions through local policy interventions.

Many African American workers in the city and immigrant workers in the suburbs have something in common: limited-to-no access to decent, mainstream work. “People are moving from the northeast and Midwest and finding a cheap housing market,” explained Nse Ufot, Executive Director of the New Georgia Project. They may find finance or tech jobs, jobs with Fortune 500 companies, or even jobs in Atlanta’s film industry. “But because wages haven’t advanced, there’s limited social and economic mobility for people who are born and raised in Georgia.” Among workers who are recent immigrants and workers with criminal records, disproportionately African American, the opportunities are particularly constrained. Many mainstream employers won’t hire workers from either group, so these workers struggle to survive in the margins on the low-paying, and too often abusive, jobs in today’s factories, poultry processing plants, construction sites, warehouses, and various service gigs throughout the metro area.

Recognizing the Factors that Lead to Human Trafficking in Metropolitan Atlanta

Research points to the particularly high risk of recent immigrants being taken advantage of by traffickers. Historically, this has meant labor trafficking cases have been concentrated in California, Texas, and Florida. However, the dispersal of immigrants across the country since the 1990s suggests we should see labor trafficking in industries in the New South and Midwest states where the demands for immigrant workers has increased. Indeed, in Minneapolis late last year, a forced labor case in which a construction contractor targeted immigrants was one of the first ever trafficking cases prosecuted in Minnesota. Relative to Minneapolis, working conditions in Atlanta appear generally worse. Minnesota at least has state departments mandated with enforcing wage and workplace safety laws; Georgia does not.

In most cases, trafficked workers are hidden in plain sight. Trafficking can take several different forms that affect both undocumented and documented workers. It can look like taking away individuals’ documents, using threats of retaliation or deportation, psychological coercion, and the use of weapons or physical barriers – anything that makes workers believe they cannot safely escape continuing to work for their trafficker. Given Metro Atlanta’s practices of immigration enforcement and high deportation rates, undocumented workers in Atlanta are also likely more hesitant to report abuses or exploitation to law enforcement authorities. Metro Atlanta’s large refugee population is also particularly vulnerable to being taken advantage of by traffickers. Preye Cobham, an attorney in Atlanta with Women Watch Afrika explained, “After 90 days of working with the resettlement agency, they’re on their own and have to start focusing on paying back the financial cost of their flight [to America]. With people knowing that they need a job to be able to pay back the government, that’s the concern… because of that worry, they’re taking any work.”

Service providers who work with survivors of trafficking in the Atlanta area report seeing a high concentration of trafficking in farm work, domestic work, mechanic shops, hair braiding shops, and the construction industry. An attorney who works with refugees outside Atlanta expressed certainty that trafficking is also happening in poultry plants.

Brutal Conditions in the Poultry and Construction Industries

Low wages and brutal conditions are especially the norm in the poultry industry throughout the South. A survey by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2000 of nearly one-third of U.S. poultry plants found 100 percent of the plants were in violation of basic federal wage laws. Every single one shortchanged their minimum wage workforce in one way or another. And according to a two-year study of the industry by Oxfam, pressures to keep up the speed of the line have led to 86 percent of workers suffering from hand and wrist pain and almost all workers reporting that it’s nearly impossible to take a break. In another study, 78 percent of poultry workers surveyed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama said that line speed makes them feel unsafe, makes work more painful, and causes more injuries.

Metro Atlanta’s poultry plants reflect the broader industry’s culture of disregard for workers’ wellbeing, which is little wonder since four large poultry companies control the entire U.S. market. The industry has long relied on Latin American immigrants to fill its plants with workers. But, potentially as a result of an uptick in indiscriminate immigration enforcement around Atlanta, the local industry appears to be increasingly relying on prisoners on work release – individuals who are overwhelmingly Black and are technically still incarcerated – and recent refugees from Africa and Asia.

The plants are also one of the few places that workers with criminal records – 92 percent of whom in the city are Black – can find employment. Many poultry workers work at the plants through temporary staffing agencies, which keeps workers in a heightened state of economic uncertainty and weakened position to try to improve their conditions or push back on abuses.

Construction is another large industry in Atlanta that relies on a large number of low-paid workers hired through temporary employment arrangements, both through formal temp staffing agencies and informal subcontracting. Like poultry, low-paying construction work disproportionately relies on Latin American immigrants, amongst whom wage theft is common. A recent survey of construction workers in Atlanta found one in six had experienced wage theft in the industry, but local organizers believe the rate is much higher since much of the low-paying work is off the books. The lowest paid workers are also routinely placed in the most hazardous conditions. Tamara Brummer, National Strategic Organizer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades noted, “Workers are getting their wages stolen and getting hurt on the job all the time, but they don’t often report [violations of their legal rights]. It’s too much of a risk.”

The construction industry is a consistent site for trafficked workers throughout the nation, but it’s one of the first industries that is being addressed in court. The poultry industry is also clearly not immune to labor trafficking. In Iowa, a poultry plant held intellectually disabled men for decades in involuntary servitude.

Prosecuting Labor Trafficking

When labor trafficking cases are prosecuted, it’s because workers are organizing deep within the targeted communities. For instance, the labor trafficking case in Minnesota was the result of an in-depth investigation into workplace abuses documented by workers with the support of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a South Minneapolis low-wage worker-led organization that fights for fair wages and working conditions in the Twin Cities metro area. Likewise, it was organized workers in Florida that has led to the liberation of over 1,200 farmworkers across the Southeastern U.S. and a marked reduction in trafficking cases in the last several years. Like CTUL, which worked with the Hennepin County Attorney in the prosecution of the Twin Cities case last year, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida have worked closely with federal prosecutors for two decades to uncover, investigate and assist in the prosecution of many cases.

To begin to reveal the extent of trafficking in local industries, Atlanta needs this kind of community-based infrastructure. Like in Minnesota and Florida, Atlanta needs organized workers at the center of efforts to eradicate trafficking. Only then will these cases come to light and can we fully contend with the continuum of labor exploitation in which these grotesque manifestations of abuse and utter lack of accountability persist.

This article was originally published on the Pathways to Freedom blog.