Farm labor advocates, leaders concerned after reported human trafficking, ties to Georgia officials

Farmworker advocates are concerned about revelations in a USA TODAY story published April 19 that revealed Georgia Department of Labor officials have ties to one of the largest U.S. human trafficking cases ever prosecuted involving foreign agricultural laborers brought here on seasonal H-2A visas.

In October, federal prosecutors indicted 24 people in Georgia for conspiring to engage in forced labor and other related crimes.

“The USA TODAY article exposes even more problems with the deeply flawed H-2A program,” said United Farm Workers Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres in a statement to the USA TODAY Network. “The links between Georgia current and former labor officials and some of the defendants is extremely concerning and highlights the need for stronger protections and oversight in the H-2A program.”

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The indictment did not mention connections between those indicted and the Georgia Department of Labor — information that reporters in the USA TODAY Network uncovered during their investigation into the trafficking scheme. One individual indicted in the case, Brett Donovan Bussey, left GDOL in 2018. The other, Jorge Gomez, remains on the job and hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, but officers searched his home in connection with the case, and his sister and nephew are among those indicted.

Both men had responsibilities directly tied to protecting H-2A workers, including inspecting migrant housing and, in the case of Gomez, overseeing the migrant and seasonal farmworker complaint system.

The Georgia Department of Labor did not return multiple requests for comment.

UFW appeals to Biden Administration

“What farm workers need is systemic change within the H-2A program that addresses these underlying flaws by improving protections in recruitment, increasing employer liability, and ensuring that workers have a voice in the workplace,” Tellefson Torres wrote. “It is urgent that the government acts to prevent human trafficking and corruption in U.S. immigration programs, rather than allow unscrupulous individuals and employers to profit off of the backs of vulnerable H-2A workers.”

United Farm Workers, the labor union and partner organization to the United Farmworkers Foundation, has launched three petitions calling on the Biden administration to increase oversight of the H-2A program in the wake of the Blooming Onion indictment — one in February, and two since the USA Today network investigation.

“Perhaps even more shocking than the indictments is that the very government officials tasked with protecting farm workers are accused of being connected to these horrible crimes,” the petition reads.

MoveOn.org petition launched Tuesday had nearly 4,500 signatures Wednesday afternoon, while a separate petition launched after the investigation had about 7,000, according to Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at UFW. Along with the February petition, she said UFW had collected about 18,500 signatures total calling for increased oversight.

Rafael Flores, communications manager with Polaris Project, said via email the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which Polaris operates, has received calls from those on H-2A visas who worked on the farms involved with or named in the Operation Blooming Onion indictment.

“It is always concerning to see signs of how the system that is supposed to protect workers is actually working the other way around,” said Andrea Rojas, director of the strategic initiative on labor trafficking at Polaris. “Migrant workers, including those in the United States legally on H-2, and other temporary work visas, routinely face situations of financial exploitation, threats, and unsafe living and working conditions by their employers.”

Help USA TODAY investigate abuse of seasonal farmworkers

The USA TODAY Network is reporting on what made the abuse of guest farmworkers in Georgia possible and who profited from it. If you are a worker who suffered abuse or know of one, or if you have any information about potential misconduct by public employees or others, we want to hear from you. We will not use your information without your permission. Contact Investigative Reporter Maria Perez: maria.perez@usatoday.com. Ella habla español.

Georgia leaders react

Elected officials in Georgia have also expressed concern about the H-2A program in the wake of the USA Today investigation.

Congressman Rick Allen, who represents Georgia’s 12th district covering Douglas, Augusta and Statesboro, serves on both the House Agricultural Committee and as ranking member of the subcommittee on Health, Employment and Labor in the House Committee on Education and Labor.

“The details of this investigation are both appalling and deeply disturbing,” Allen wrote in a statement. “It is clear that the Georgia Department of Labor failed to enforce basic H-2A compliance measures intended to protect seasonal workers, who serve as a vital link in our nationwide food-supply chain … I have long advocated for policies that safeguard the dignity of seasonal farm workers, and I support proactive measures to ensure these programs, managed by the states, are operated in full compliance with federal statute.”

Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff has also expressed concern about the Blooming Onion case. In a letter in early March, Ossoff called on the Biden administration to review the H-2A program. He also listed a number of questions for the Secretaries of State, Labor and Homeland Security on the program, and requested a response by March 31.

“We have not yet received official responses from the Administration to Sen. Ossoff’s letter urging a full review of the Federal H-2A visa program,” wrote Jake Best, Ossoff’s communication director, in an email.

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