Mapping Agricultural Labour Trafficking in Texas

19 June 2019
Research Innovation

Sarah Southey  | Program Assistant, Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery

Human trafficking is underreported, frequently misidentified, and may never come to the attention of law enforcement and service providers. The lack of accurate prevalence estimates of trafficking makes it difficult to determine an effective response. Organizations combatting trafficking struggle to answer two fundamental questions: where does trafficking happen, and how do we reach trafficking victims?

This challenge is particularly pronounced in agriculture, where work occurs in remote, isolated locations. Workers often live at their worksite, many have uncertain immigration status, and some have incurred large debts from illegal recruitment fees. Studies that have attempted to determine the prevalence of trafficking in these “hidden populations” have found victimization rates between 16 -25 per cent.

The Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery, a three-year pilot programme to combat forced agricultural labour in Texas, is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to address these challenges. GIS tools have grounded the design and implementation of the programme in evidence-based practices—to better target programme interventions and facilitate data collection and organization.

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, 2018

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, 2018

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, 2018

Evidence-based practices to target interventions

While prevalence estimates of labour trafficking in agriculture in Texas do not exist, there are a number of public databases that point to areas with high rates of labour exploitation. We conducted geospatial analysis of these databases to identify areas with a high risk of labour trafficking, and designed interventions to target these areas.

The first analysis attempted to determine which counties had the largest concentration of farmworkers in the state of Texas. The agricultural census conducted by the Department of Agriculture offers three key measurements: the number of non-migrant, non-contract workers; the number of migrant workers; and the amount spent on contract labour. The amount spent on contract labour is of particular interest to the programme, as a diluted chain of command is one of the risk factors in labour trafficking. Hidalgo County, along the southern border, has both the highest number of migrant workers and the most spent on contract labour—more than the other top 10 counties combined.

The number of workers, however, does not give us a clear picture of where labour abuses are occurring. Other federal agencies collect information that gives us insight into labour exploitation in agriculture. The United States Department of Labor publishes a database of employers who have been charged with wage and hour violations since 2005. The heat map below was generated by filtering this database for agricultural industries, running the data through GIS software to pin the employer locations, and conducting analyses to weight the results by the number of violations per employer. Once again, Hidalgo County leads the state in reported labour issues.

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, 2018


We also used geospatial analysis to assess where the greatest needs for resources lie. By mapping the existing trafficking-task forces in Texas, we were able to identify large gaps in coverage.  Overlaying this map with the maps discussed above, and adding other data conducted by the programme, yields a more complete picture of where to allocate resources.

Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, 2018

In September 2018, we moved our offices to the eye of the storm: Hidalgo County. The Initiative has awarded grants to expand task force coverage and enhance the capacity of the justice sector and legal aid organizations to serve victims in 74 counties identified as high risk, underserved areas.

Improving programme interventions

GIS tools are also being used to improve the effectiveness of programe interventions. Direct outreach to farmworkers is the cornerstone of the Initiative’s goal to identify and fight forced labour. This is based on longstanding evidence that critical to addressing labour exploitation, including labour trafficking, is the involvement of “bridge” organizations between victims and law enforcement. GIS tools enable the outreach team to plan, coordinate and evaluate outreach efforts.

The first challenge is finding agricultural workers. Some public datasets provide addresses of farms along with other regulatory information. Farms cited by federal regulatory agencies for safety and labour violations, while not necessarily sites of trafficking, are of particular interest to the outreach team. We mapped these datasets onto an interactive map accessible through GIS mobile apps, enabling the outreach team to access information about the extent and type of violations through their phones.

Workers in the H2A agricultural visa programme, a programme rife with abuses, are also targeted by our outreach team. Employers are required to provide housing to workers with an H2A visa and report the location of H2A housing to the appropriate authorities, however the directions are often inaccurate and difficult to follow. These “hidden” housing locations are a risk factor for labour trafficking. Through geolocation, satellite imagery and direct site visits, our outreach team is mapping these housing locations down to the nearest meter.

The most important data for our programme is collected by our outreach team in the field. They have visited more than 900 sites in Texas, collecting information ranging from the type of crop and the size of workforce, to specific complaints from workers. The locations of these site visits are mapped using high-accuracy geolocation and is available through an app to the rest of the outreach team.

Beyond Texas

The combination of these methods has streamlined and improved efforts to identify cases of labour trafficking and inform farmworkers of their rights. Although our analyses have only been conducted in Texas, the approach adopted by the Initiative can be replicated across the US. Grounding programme design and implementation in evidence-based practices results in more effective and targeted interventions, improving our ability to combat agricultural labour trafficking.

Sarah Southey is a Program Assistant at the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery.

This article has been prepared by Sarah Southey as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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