The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Who Picked the Grapes for that Chardonnay? Labor Trafficking in Washington State

Washington StateMartha BurwellComment

The first thing that happens is you get blisters on your thumbs.  Then the sunburn, the aching legs, and the bruises from tossing your ladder into the apple tree. 

Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me: I’ve been employed as a migrant laborer.  When I was living in New Zealand a few years ago, I worked in an apple orchard, ‘thinning’ the trees, for one spring.  This means manually removing extra apples when they are small, so the ‘keeper’ apples can grow to full size without being crowded.

Working in the orchard, you are often not subject to minimum wage laws.  You get paid per tree—how fast you work.  This quickly becomes dangerous, as you’re using a 10 foot tall, 3-legged ladder, and literally running up and down it from tree to tree.  It’s completely exhausting.  And you never really make more than minimum wage, no matter how fast you go, and you can easily dip below minimum wage if you allow yourself to slow to a safer, more human pace. 

But in New Zealand, the wages are slightly better than in the US.  I was not coerced into the job, and knew I was protected by their stronger labor laws, and free national accident health insurance. 

In the US, and many other countries, it's a different story.

Our lives, and the products we consume, are much more deeply impacted by labor trafficking that I ever knew.  I always had a twinge of guilt when I bought a shirt from Forever 21, because it’s so cheap it must have been produced in sweatshops.  I’d heard that many of our agricultural workers receive pennies to the dollar for their work.  But I didn’t realize how prevalent trafficking is in our lives, because it’s so well hidden from view. 

I had the chance to interview labor trafficking expert Bratati Ghosh last month to learn more.  Bratati is the Chief Marketing Officer for a global software firm, and has been deeply involved in the causes of global development and women’s issues for more than 10 years.  I met her this summer, and she told me about a course on labor trafficking she co-lead recently at the University of Washington.

What inspired you to work on eliminating labor trafficking?

“I grew up in India, and that made me deeply aware that (….) one zipcode away there were all these women and children who did not have access to the proper means of livelihood, healthcare, and education.  And this was not happening in another part of the world, it was happening right next door,” she explained. “I came here (to the U.S.) in 1994 and worked for 10 years before turning my mind back to how I could get engaged in the global movement to end these forms of social and economic injustice.  And being a business-minded person, I really felt that the route out of this disparity had to be through some economic means.”

What drew you to teach the course on labor trafficking at UW?

Having met UW Women’s Center Executive Director Dr. Sutapa Basu through a mutual friend, the two decided to join forces and co-lead the course through the Jackson School of International Studies.  This was driven by Bratati's renewed interest in the topic, in part inspired by the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed over 1,100 people in 2013, where clothing for stores such as WalMart and JcPenney was being made.  The UW class focused on Washington State, and the course students created a task force that put together a 300 page report that went to the our state legislature as policy recommendation, titled From International Supply Chains to Local Consumption: Eliminating Labor Trafficking from all Companies in Washington State.

What were some of the main findings?

In short, “we are the unwitting consumers of products that have been made in the developing world, by people working in abysmal conditions.  We are in some senses the victims of that as well, in that we are not informed, we are contributing to the cycle of poverty.”

But this is also happening in our own home state. “We think that we are not that affected by labor trafficking, when in actuality, there are so many farm workers in Washington that may be said to be in various forms of trafficked labor.  You have to define trafficking in a broader way to explain that any form of coercion means the person is trafficked. One example is the burgeoning Washington wine industry, where “a lot of the grape harvesting is actually done under really poor conditions, leveraging immigrant labor.”

What role does gender play in labor trafficking?

Overall, “there are roughly as many men as women in the world of trafficking. (…) but some of the types of coercion are a little bit different.  In general labor trafficking involves working in terrible, grueling, and unhygienic conditions, potentially exposed to dangers and toxins” for all laborers. 

Though farm workers tend to be both women and men, men also “tend to be in industries like construction and mining (..) whereas women are in the garment factories such as in Bangladesh and Tailand and so on, that supply most of the clothes that we wear.”  Additionally, female laborers have higher risks from sexual assault and violence in the workplace. 

How do sex trafficking and labor trafficking overlap?

Though sex trafficking has been more publicized, labor trafficking is in fact much larger, with 14.2 million people globally, as compared to 4.5 million sex trafficking victims.  “And while it’s particularly degrading to be a victim of sex trafficking, it’s still important to look at the whole picture of all forms of human trafficking.”

The lines between the two aren’t always clear, however.  Female laborers are frequently subject to sexual harassment from their employers and others.  Sex trafficking “is a function of the same kind of economic disempowerment and psychological abuse that often accompanies economic power over someone else.  It’s part of the same continuum.  So you cannot really say clearly that this part is labor trafficking and this part is sex trafficking.”

This risk is amplified for undocumented immigrants, who often fear to report abuses.  For example, PBS reported in 2013 how one worker from Sunnyside, Washington, who did report sexual abuse by her employer faced incredible obstacles: “It was a rare public accusation for an immigrant, many of whom fear retaliation and deportation if they speak up.”

What about industries that are traditionally not regulated as thoroughly, like housekeeping and in-home childcare?

Though the report did include some information on employees such as nannies and nail salon workers, “it’s really, really difficult to track down data on that (..) Anecdotally there’s evidence that supports what you’re saying, and it’s of course true, but it’s difficult to analyze the data.” 


On the flip side, who is doing the trafficking? And why?  

“We didn’t really measure that, but the vast majority of traffickers tend to be men, I think it’s safe to say. (…) The reason why trafficking flourishes globally is that it’s highly, highly profitable. (…) There is an estimate that about $150 Billion US dollars are generated by traffickers globally, annually in profits from forced labor.  That’s a huge number.  And as it generally happens, who sits on top of that profit and influence of power and money are typically men.”

How would switching to fair labor practices affect businesses?

“One of the studies that we are working on right now will show (…) the impacts of eliminating labor trafficking from your supply chain.  I, for one, believe that it’s a positive impact on the business, as we have seen in shifting market share between the likes of WalMart, who have not taken an early stance against it, versus Costco, which took a very early stance in favor of having more progressive labor practices.”  She continued, “we have to look at all these aspects and be able to say here’s how it is a win for companies as well.”

For example, one study of Banana Republic quoted in the report showed a 14% increase in sales for an outfit on display when the signage included information about fair labor, rather than simply about fashion.  “I think there is a pent-up demand from the consumer side” to buy socially conscious items, that businesses can capitalize on. 

Recommendations to help solve this? 

  • Implement “a code of conduct, and create a penalty and rewards system” for businesses in Washington State.  Use both the carrot and the stick.
  • Expand the state-wide hotline for sex trafficking victims “to also enable labor trafficking victims to speak out without threat of retaliation.”
  • Form “an academic, political, and activist-led advisory board to create good fair labor practices” state-wide.  
  • Finally, “education on this must begin at the school level,” to engage young people in the issue so they are aware of it and can help to solve it.

What about everyday people?  What can we do?

“We need to inform and educate ourselves of the labor conditions in the supply chain of the companies that we consume products from.  In the absence of legislation that identifies something as being made by fair labor practices, the onus is on us to demand it. (…) Conscious employees, conscious consumers, activists, political influencers, can all come together to solve this problem.”

To learn more about the course and work done on labor trafficking in Washington, see the University of Washington Task Force Report: http://depts.washington.edu/womenctr/programs/human-trafficking/human-trafficking-task-force-report-2015/

PS.  About that Chardonnay: one recommended local winery is Mercer Canyons, which was suggested by local wine expert Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly.

This interview has been edited for brevity. 

You can also listen to the interview on SoundCloud here