Disability and Modern Slavery: lack of attention as harmful as deliberate malice

Disability and Modern Slavery: lack of attention as harmful as deliberate malice

Disability and Modern Slavery: lack of attention as harmful as deliberate malice

This post accompanies the Human Trafficking Search Podcast mini-series hosted by Freedom United on the Rethink Freedom podcast page. 

Over the last six months, my research at HTS has focused on one of the least studied and potentially most neglected intersections facing the anti-trafficking community: the connection between disability and human trafficking. 

My first exposure to this often-ignored intersection came a few years ago during my studies at Grinnell College, a small liberal college in central Iowa. While researching Iowan disability policy for school, I came across testimony from EEOC vs Hill County Farms, a landmark civil case that briefly brought disability and human trafficking into the American mainstream and is referred to by several of the guests interviewed for our podcast. The details of the case were striking: in Atalissa, a tiny, remote Iowan farm town with a population of 296, dozens of intellectually disabled men were living in a defunct schoolhouse. These men, all trafficked from Texas, spent their days, from early morning to night, eviscerating turkeys in return for room, lodging, and $65 a month, suffering neglect and daily exploitation. At work, they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by their supervisors, who  frequently referred to them as “retarded,” “dumb ass,” and “stupid.” Victims reported physical abuse that included hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing workers to carry heavy weights as punishment. The workers’ purported caretakers – their supervisors at work – were “often dismissive of complaints of injuries or pain.” 

How did this happen? Further reading revealed that a 1966 deal between the Abilene State School and a network of American businesses served as a foundation for this system of “legal” labor trafficking. The arrangement and its resulting program, dubbed “the magic of simplicity,” centered on integrating people with intellectual disabilities into society by outsourcing their care to private enterprises. Henry’s Turkey Service, located in Atalissa, was one of these enterprises. Henry’s made a deal in 1972 to host several dozen intellectually disabled men and send them to work in a turkey processing plant. The plant paid Henry’s directly for the men’s labor, which meant that Henry’s could leverage the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which allowed payment of subminimum wages to workers with a disability. The company took full advantage, paying their men approximately 41 cents an hour

The men had been living and working in deplorable conditions for five years before the Des Moines Register began investigating the arrangement in 1979. The Register began publishing articles about the exploitative arrangement, attracting criticism and scrutiny to the exploitative system. Soon after, a social services worker investigated the situation and filed a report describing it as a “slave-labor camp” and “human-rights horror.” This is where you would expect support and justice to enter the story. Journalists, social workers, and above all, the government should have immediately intervened to end the abusive practices uncovered. Instead, as public interest fizzled, the Iowa Department of Social Services concluded that operations could continue, and the media’s spotlight of the exploitation faded. Over the next 30 years, Henry’s sent a further 1,500 mentally disabled men to labor camps in seven different states, including more camps in Iowa at Spirit Lake, Ellsworth and Atalissa, where they continued to be subjected to deplorable and abusive conditions. 

Then, in 2009 through a concerted effort on the part of a coalition of victims, their families, investigative journalists, and social workers another investigation took place and found that conditions at the various bunkhouses had devolved further. Caretakers subjected the men to “filthy mattresses, mice-and-roach-infested squalor.” Victims “suffered beatings and other physical punishment for rule violations, including being chained to beds. Some suffered chronic work-related injuries, and most had not received appropriate medical or dental care in years.” Their supervisors never received specialized training or tapped into Iowa’s social service system. Even as the disability rights movement had grown and won huge victories across the country over the previous 30 years, the men in Atalissa were forgotten. The ‘boys’ in the bunkhouse, as the media dubbed them, had been failed and abandoned by the community and the law. This time, the investigation led to action. The state fire marshal declared the building uninhabitable and the men were evacuated overnight, finally ending the exploitation. In 2014 a judge ordered Henry’s to pay all the victims two years of back wages, with Iowa’s then-governor acknowledging that “every level of government has failed these men since 1974.”

What can we make of this? Atalissa is just under an hour and a half from Grinnell. The towns have a lot in common: they are relatively small, rural, tight communities. Before reading about the Atalissa case, I had a sense of how common trafficking and labor exploitation were.e. Yet, like so many, I erroneously assumed that this type of exploitation only happened in distant cities, and that it couldn’t – or at least wouldn’t – happen on my small town doorstep. I was wrong, of course. Modern slavery and human trafficking can happen anywhere.

I began delving deeper into research on human trafficking and was struck by the lack of attention paid to the relationship between trafficking and disability. As a person with a disability who is engaged with the disability community, it was obvious to me that people with disabilities would have increased and distinct socially-grounded vulnerabilities to trafficking and modern slavery.  Below is a summary of my findings from the small body of literature on this topic published in a past HTS blog post, Connecting the Dots: Disability, Human Trafficking and Climate Change. 

It is a known fact that people with disabilities are more likely to experience human trafficking than the general population. Traffickers tend to target those they perceive as vulnerable, and the pervasive stigma faced by people with disabilities makes them especially appealing targets. Research on the intersection of human trafficking and disability is heavily limited due to a lack of academic and governmental focus on disabled trafficking victims. But studies indicate that people with disabilities are targeted at exceptionally high rates by traffickers. The research that exists suggests people with disabilities face increased difficulty finding living wage employment and face increased healthcare costs, both of which are associated with trafficking victimization. More fundamentally, these factors, among others, can plunge people with disabilities into poverty, which is strongly associated with trafficking risk. Given all of this, it is unsurprising that people with disabilities tend to be at higher risk of being trafficked than the broader population.

Despite clear evidence that the connection between disability and trafficking is essential to understand and address the dynamics of modern trafficking, the anti-trafficking community tends to ignore this critical intersection. In the wake of the revelations in Atalissa, Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said 

“The turkey plant case has really haunted all of us. This is what happens when we don’t pay attention.” 

If the Atalissa story tells us anything, it tells us that a lack of attention, or an unwillingness to act in the face of injustice, can be as harmful as deliberate malice. May this post and the accompanying podcast serve as a reminder for us to pay attention.

Brendan Hyatt- Brendan Hyatt (he/him/his) is a recent graduate of Grinnell College and a Research Fellow at Human Trafficking Search. Brendan began researching and advocating for disability inclusion in the climate justice movement while interning with the Environmental Law Institute and has since presented his work for the Resilient Iowa Communities Advisory Committee, FEMA’s Resilient Nation Partnership Network, and other organizations.


Leave Your Comment