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Fruit cart vendors falling victim to human trafficking network

A roadside fruit cart worker is seen in Bakersfield, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX photo/Alert Garcia)

Eyewitness News discovered fruit cart vendors around town are part of a labor-trafficking network that originates in Los Angeles.

“Any time you see a vendor on the side of the road, there is a chance that person is being trafficked or debt bondage or peonage,” said Michael Fagans, coordinator for the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Fruit cart workers are usually brought into the country by “coyotajes.” All the vendors Eyewitness News talked to were immigrants from Mexico who were offered $50 a day plus free housing in exchange for work.

“A coyote is someone who brings them across the border, usually for exuberant amounts of money … they know the techniques, they have certain strategies, and so they do this on a fairly regular basis,” said Fagans.

RELATED STORY | Groups work to stop complex problem of human trafficking in Kern County

These coyotajes operate to a pretty strategic system. Once the immigrants are brought into the country, they live in homes, which are owned by their boss. One fruit cart worker said he lived with 10 others under one roof. Immigrants who work under one boss call themselves a team.

Every morning, fruit cart vendors wake up, prepare their carts and are dropped off at a location outside of Los Angeles. Vendors have been reported in numerous locations all across the state, including San Bernardino, Pasadena and Coalinga Park.

“The I-5 corridor literally goes all the way to Tijuana and to Vancouver, so every city up and down the I-5 is potentially on a labor trafficking route. Same thing with the 99,” said Fagans.

Fruit cart vendors say they work 12 hours a day for an average $4.16 an hour, seven days a week. There is usually no restroom nearby, and if they want food they have to ask one of their customers for it.

“We don’t go out, we don’t go anywhere … we come here to work, not to play or have fun,” said Gustavo, a fruit vendor.

Even though, these fruit cart workers are getting paid to work, they are making less than minimum wage and working long hours with no vacation, which Fagans said is still considered labor trafficking.

“A lot of people call this modern day slavery, and many of us world argue that it is,” said Fagans.

Fagans said there's a lack of awareness for the situation going on, which has allowed this network of fruit cart workers to grow.

“Human trafficking is probably where domestic violence was 20 years ago, so I think we are still trying to get this in front of folks and have them understand what’s going on,” said Fagans.

As a result, besides an awareness campaign, little is being done to actually get rid of these “bosses,” who are taking advantage of immigrants.

Despite the long hours and little pay, cart workers say they are still making more money than they would be in Mexico, so they don’t see any problem with the situation they’re in.

“All too often they think what’s happening is normal,” said Fagans.

This is a common situation Fagans sees in other human trafficking cases and said even if victims realized the situation they're in, it can be difficult to get out.

Fagans described the threats some of these vendors might hear: "If you don't sell this fruit at this corner, I know where your parents live. I know they live in Delano, I know where they live in Oaxaca, and one of my fellas is going to go visit. I know that your sister is in college at BC, so we are going to go pay her a visit. You betters sell that fruit."

Fagans said without more widespread understanding, the exploitation of immigrants across the state will continue and more immigrants will be manipulated into selling and chopping fruit on the street corners.

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