A dark secret lies in the fields of Kern County.
Labor and sex trafficking victims claim they’re forced to work in the fields or forced into sex trafficking through intimidation.
"It's fake relationships and its fake job offers and of course with labor trafficking it can be both, but usually it's the fake job offer," says Phil Gazley, a Coordinator for the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Gazley has worked for about 15 years researching human trafficking and three years ago helped start the coalition in Kern County.
When it comes down to the numbers, there's no clear statistic on the severity of the problem because the victims often don't come forward.
Many of the labor trafficking victims in the fields are foreign nationals, from all parts of the world including Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and even as far as India.
"The victims don't self-identify and there's a lot of fear with being deported if they do come forward and come to law enforcement so we don't actually get to see the victims until something bad actually happens and they identify themselves," says Kern County Sheriff detective Dustin Contreras.
According to Detective Contreras, no case, whether sex or labor related is the same because he says the trafficker is only limited by their imagination.
While victim’s privacy laws prevent him from going into specific case details, he says their job as law enforcement is to help, regardless of a victim’s immigration status.
"We treat them all the same if they're out in the outlying area; we drive out to that area. If they're out in a field, we drive out to the field," says Contreras.
The Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking started about three years ago and is trying to bring resources together and awareness to the community.
"There are people here that have been flat out lied to and as a result of that are going to hell and back right now in their lives and need people to come alongside them and help them get out of the situations that they're in," says Gazley.
The United Farm Workers work directly with farmers' rights across the country. They say they're also aware of the issue in Kern County but find that workers often don't realize they're being victimized.
"They report that they weren't paid, they report that they don't have- that they're living at a labor camp but they don't have access to the grocery store or they don't have kitchen facilities or bathroom facilities, so we're really trying to introduce workers to these moderate indicators," said Lupe Larios, a global impact advocate for the UFW.
The UFW is in the process of launching a program called Repórtalo that means “report it” in English. They said their goal is to educate farm workers about the signs of trafficking.
"Workers are afraid that if they report an issue they're afraid of backlash from the employer and they're afraid that they won't be able to get a job somewhere else," said Larios.
The UFW says they're trying to erase that fear and hope that with this program they'll be able to investigate trafficking allegations and potentially help the employees take legal action.
To report any type of human trafficking call the national human trafficking resource hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to BeFree (233733).
To make a report through the UFW Repórtalo campaign call 1-800-969-6737.
Recognizing the signs:
Common Work and Living Conditions: The individual(s) in question
- Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
- Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
- Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
- Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
- Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
- Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
- Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
- Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
- High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior
- Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
- Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
- Avoids eye contact
Poor Physical Health
- Lacks health care
- Appears malnourished
- Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
Lack of Control
- Has few or no personal possessions
- Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
- Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
- Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
- Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
- Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
- Loss of sense of time
- Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story