“Slavery is in the past. It’s time to move forward,” they say.
Well, according to a recently unsealed federal indictment against farmers and contractors in rural Georgia accused of spending years engaging in a huge human trafficking operation that gives big sharecropping energy, the “past” is very much the present right here in the supposed “home of the free.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the federal indictment that was unsealed last week involves what officials have called “modern-day slavery” on farms located in several counties in South Georgia. More than one hundred laborers were smuggled in from Mexico and Central America where they were subjected to “brutal” and “inhumane” working conditions, forced to work for literal pocket change, denied access to food and safe drinking water, imprisoned on properties guarded by electric fences and threatened with gun violence if they tried to escape, according to the indictment.
And if all of that doesn’t sound plantation-like enough, the indictment alleges that laborers had even been bought and sold between farmers who participated in what the feds are calling “Operation Blooming Onion”—which the criminal enterprise was titled because some laborers were allegedly forced to dig for onions with their bare hands and were paid only 20 cents for each bucket harvested.
24 defendants have been named in the indictment so far with only two of them being listed as licensed business owners while the rest are listed as labor contractors or recruiters. The crimes are alleged to have occurred in the rural Georgia counties of Atkinson, Bacon, Coffee, Tattnall, Toombs, and Ware. The defendants are all facing a slew of charges including mail fraud and mail fraud conspiracy, forced labor and forced labor conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and witness tampering, AJC reported.
The indictment states that victims were charged unlawful fees for transportation, food, and housing and were largely kept in cramped spaces including rundown trailers with raw sewage leaks. Along with threats of gun violence, the filing says participants often prevented their human chattel from escaping by confiscating their passports and other legal documents. The indictment also alleges that workers were routinely abused, that at least two died on the job and at least one was repeatedly raped.
“The American dream is a powerful attraction for destitute and desperate people across the globe, and where there is need, there is greed from those who will attempt to exploit these willing workers for their own obscene profits,” David Estes, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said in a statement. “Thanks to outstanding work from our law enforcement partners, Operation Blooming Onion frees more than 100 individuals from the shackles of modern-day slavery and will hold accountable those who put them in chains.”
Solimar Mercado-Spencer, a senior staff attorney at the Farmworker Rights Division of the Georgia Legal Services Program, which is a non-profit law firm that represents abused and exploited farmworkers in Georgia, told AJC that “Operation Blooming Onion” is basically just another Tuesday in South Georgia and that what the defendants are accused of are common practices that have been going on for a long time in the Peach State.
“This has been happening for a long time in Georgia…And these people that were arrested are not the only ones doing these things,” Mercado-Spencer said. “I hope [law enforcement] keeps busting these operations because that’s not the only one going on in Georgia.”
“All you see is, you know, your onions at Kroger,” she continued. “You can go buy them. You don’t know where they came from. But this is happening and nobody notices it. And these are essential workers that have been keeping us fed through the pandemic.”
This is the America we know, and it’s one a certain political party has been hellbent on pretending no longer exists.
None of this is particularly surprising, but it’s cruel and horrid and it needs to stop. Hopefully, everyone involved is put in chains and kept in cramped spaces just like their “workers.”