By Claudia Castillo – Research Associate
Did you know that 79% of the agricultural workforce in Colorado are undocumented? By using the number of H-2A visas issued in 2007 (1,925) and the 2009 estimated number of undocumented workers (9000); approximately 79% of the work force are undocumented.
And did you know that 73% of H-2A employers cheated workers out of money? The United States Government Accountability Office 2015 report which states that 73% of H-2A employers from fiscal year 2009 through 2013 were in violation of back pay and/or other money penalties, it is not fallacious to suppose that undocumented workers experience the same level of violations.
Colorado’s need for a flexible labor force capable of surging during certain seasons without creating a significance increase in the immigrant population is the crux of the problem for the state.
The realization that there may be trafficked laborers into forced labor on Colorado farms is not a novel idea but the difficulty of obtaining evidence that proves to what extent these human rights violations occur has proven to be extremely challenging. With such a huge population of undocumented agricultural laborers and the lack of oversight throughout Colorado, one can only surmise that violations of the Colorado immigration, human trafficking and forced labor laws implemented in 2006 exist.
The lack of research and data of Colorado’s agricultural labor force coupled with the scarce numbers of prosecuted human trafficking and forced labor cases in the agricultural sector is not indicative that the problem does not exist; it just makes the argument for developing a research initiative to determine the extent of the problem. It is not enough to extrapolate human trafficking and forced labor data from national reports or adjacent states to try and identify Colorado’s level of trafficking and forced labor activity in the agriculture sector.
What Can Colorado Do?
If Colorado is dedicated to mitigating these violations, then it is obligated to collect the requisite data.
The Colorado Human Trafficking Council has the dedicated subject matter experts and organizations that if given an opportunity to operate in the right location, could start to shed light on the prevalence of human trafficking and forced labor. The current collaboration between several trafficking organizations sets the stage for implementing a small-scale study to determine prevalence. The inclusion of local subject matter experts like those at Colorado State University in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics could develop into a mutual beneficial project that could be the foundation of viable data sets.
Ideally, the data compiled by various national and local organizations could be useful to the state of Colorado and the Human Trafficking Council to determine the areas where workers could be the most susceptible to trafficking.
Colorado is no stranger to enacting laws that counter federal statutes and could use that experience to develop and pass a law that allows the state to hire workers like the H-2A program, issue state visa cards, potentially tax each worker and ensure employer compliance with federal and local immigration, human trafficking and forced labor laws. The state visa program would allow recruitment of workers within Colorado. This type of program coupled with enforcing the 2013 “Trust Act” could create an environment where the undocumented/documented labor force is no longer a hidden population.
What Could be Next?
If legislators, law enforcement, local organizations, ranchers, communities, and foreign-born laborers cooperate and communicate; the result may be two- fold: 1) mitigating trafficking and forced labor practices and 2) the availability of a workforce capable of meeting the needs of the agricultural business within Colorado.