BuzzFeed’s eye-opening report reveals modern-day ‘slavery’ in US

It took Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger nearly five months of full-time reporting, 80 interviews, and thousands of public records to research their sweeping investigative story on temporary foreign workers, “The New American Slavery,” published Friday on BuzzFeed News.

The 8,000-word report includes repeated allegations of the exploitation of foreign workers and paints scenes of gun-toting guards, stolen pay, sexual harassment, and injuries inflicted by hazardous chemicals. The story is a harrowing glimpse into the severe mistreatment of migrants, which usually isn’t labeled a US problem outside of sex trafficking.

Not only is it a problem, argue Garrison and Bensinger, it’s a big problem. More than 100,000 “H-2” visas are awarded each year to non-US citizens looking for work in “menial labor” jobs like landscaping or farming. In their reporting, they found that each year tens of thousands faced regular abuse from their employers, who, for the most part, get off easy.

It’s an ambitious report from an outlet that’s been trying to make a name for itself in the world of hard-hitting journalism. BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith wrote in a tweet that it’s the newsroom’s “largest-scale” investigation to date. The story’s bite is as strong as its reporting, illuminating a rarely seen but wide-reaching human rights dilemma.

“It’s a little more palatable, easier to deal with, when you’re thinking about it happening in Thailand, Sri Lanka, or some place like that,” Bensinger says. “But that it would be happening in our territory is really shocking, scary, and horrifying, and also, I think, important to talk about.”

Many H-2 visa workers come from Mexico, Guatemala, and the Philippines and feel so tied to their host employers–and their wages–that they normalize brazen abuses, says Garrison, such as not being allowed to leave work sites after their shifts. “They would be like, Of course, I was locked in; the way that you or I might be like, And, of course, my hotel room came with a TV,” says Garrison, who first learned of these abuses while reading a complaint against a forestry contractor who allegedly physically threatened workers and charged them $2,000 per visa, which is illegal under the rules of the program.

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The federal government has examined some claims made by these migrant workers, but Garrison and Bensinger say it has largely failed to protect them. A statement from the US Department of Labor didn’t fight that accusation, Bensinger adds, instead describing a “broken” immigration system and calls for reform that have met “Congressional opposition.”

To be fair, Garrison adds, many companies that sponsor workers for H-2 visas treat employees well and try to operate within the law. In 2014, though, the US Department of Labor flagged 82 percent of the cases it examined for some type of violation. “Imagine a universe in which 82 percent of employers don’t follow laws regarding pay,” Garrison says. “That’s pretty crazy.”

For their reporting, BuzzFeed News sent Garrison and Bensinger to Topolobampo, a small Mexican village reliant on the H-2 program, as well as to the Acadiana region of Louisiana, where the seafood industry depends on guest workers. The reporting team, which started working on the story full-time in March, sifted through thousands of court records and brawny government databases, turning to Jeremy Singer-Vine, a data editor who earned a byline on the story, to analyze the information.

BuzzFeed has long been known as an ace content creator, rich in viral videos and quizzes. But through its news arm, the company has declared a commitment to resource-heavy, uncompromising reporting. This story isn’t the outlet’s first step in that direction, but it’s one of its strongest. Garrison and Bensinger are looking into possible follow-ups.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha