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Time to talk about labor trafficking at the Fyre Festival

by Rochelle Keyhan | Collective Liberty
Friday, 1 February 2019 17:01 GMT

William 'Billy' McFarland, organizer of the Fyre Festival, exits the U.S. Federal Court in Manhattan following his presentment on wire fraud charges in New York City, U.S., July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some workers still have not been paid their wages to the collective tune of at least a quarter of a million dollars

Hiding in plain sight beneath the schadenfreude of last week’s Netflix and Hulu documentaries analyzing a wealthy millennial festival going awry is Billy McFarland’s exploitation of Bahamian day workers. While trafficking isn’t always easy to prove, and felonies like money laundering are strong ways to bring consequences, trafficking behavior must at least be part of our conversations and the public consciousness. Our national attention is focused on the thousands of dollars people readily had available to buy tickets and load onto festival wristbands, while hardly exploring the impact on Bahamian workers who struggle to find employment on a daily basis. Both groups invested their resources in a festival that had no intention of paying them - but who lost more? We need to be as horrified about McFarland’s exploitation of his fellow people as we are about their bank accounts.

Billy McFarland fraudulently induced thousands of people to invest their money in his festival, and he has been punished for that to the tune of 6 years in jail and over $26 million in restitution. But he is not facing charges for his fraudulently inducing day laborers to work  without a set schedule, without breaks, in conditions where there weren’t restrooms or appropriate temperature controls. Sex trafficking, with which most are familiar, and labor trafficking have slightly different legal requirements. Sex trafficking in the United States is activity induced by force, fraud, or coercion. To constitute labor trafficking, a person must induce another to provide labor or services using force, coercion, or fraud that implies serious consequences for not working. As a society we are hung up on “force”, which is one possible component of trafficking. But, in the end, we neglect the equally relevant components of “fraud” and “coercion”.

While Billy McFarland may not have used physical force to obtain work from the Bahamian day workers, he clearly defrauded and coerced them. He coerced them to work hard, long hours in strenuous conditions, knowing all along they would not be paid. What may have begun as mere fraud and exploitation transitioned to human trafficking in the days leading up to the festival. In those final days they were sometimes getting only 3 hours of sleep before getting back to work, fearing that if they didn’t they would suffer the financial harm of not be paid the wages already owed them if they refused. All the while they were not, and still have not been, paid their wages to the collective tune of at least a quarter of a million dollars.

This clearly crosses the line from exploitation to trafficking and it’s time we start talking about what that means. Most people are familiar with young girls being kidnapped by traffickers like in the movie Taken, or the British super model who was kidnapped and sold on the dark web. While those are extreme examples of trafficking, the labor trafficking evident in this treatment of the day workers is far more common, and far less discussed or addressed.

The restaurant owner, Maryann Rolle, upon whom hundreds of the festival attendees were dumped without her knowledge lost her entire savings accommodating them. She had the savvy to make a GoFundMe page and has recuperated her losses. Yet one freelance employer created a GoFundMe campaign last year for the Bahamian Day Workers that has raised only $400 out of the $8,000 they are owed. These are the wages owed under one of many freelancers whose workers are still unpaid, a fraction of the $250,000 owed to the hundreds of other workers employed by other freelancers and the festival coordinators themselves. The Bahamian government is receiving the complaints and pleas for assistance. An American man, conducting business for an American company engaged in the exploitation and defrauding of these contractors in the Bahamas. He can be charged in the Bahamas, but we can also hold him accountable domestically as we did for the wire frauds he committed while in the Bahamas.

What we are choosing to focus on in the aftermath of the Fyre Festival defines our priorities, and the types of fraud we are unwilling to tolerate. Billy McFarland is a lot of things. A con man. A money launderer. A liar. He is also a human trafficker. And we shouldn’t tolerate it.