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ONTARIO: Human-trafficking victims reveal harsh reality of being treated like 'slaves'

'We were literally slaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week,' says victim who detailed climate of fear, threats and intimidation tactics

EDITOR’S NOTE: These interviews have been conducted through a Spanish-English translator. As such, the reporter has corrected grammar and amended awkward wording for clarity when quoting. Some details have been redacted to protect the identities of the victims.

The recently rescued victims of a human trafficking probe in Simcoe County continue to live in fear of repercussions after breaking free from the grip of the operation.

On Feb. 5, Barrie Police Service, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) executed a number of search warrants in Barrie and Wasaga Beach related to a labour human-trafficking investigation.

As a result, 43 victims, who came to Canada from Mexico, were safely relocated.

Two of the victims sat down with Village Media this week to talk about their experiences. Both victims identified a leader of the ring who they corresponded with before coming to Canada. That leader also oversaw operations in Simcoe County and liaised with local resorts and businesses.

As of Feb. 14, Peter Leon, communications co-ordinator with Barrie police, confirmed that no criminal charges have been laid. As a result, the leader will not be identified.

“I am really concerned and worried about my family members in Mexico because (the leader) has spoken to some of my family members because I am not answering their phone calls,” says Juan, who asked that his real name not be used. “(The leader) has called them using different phones to make sure I’m not going to say anything.”

Both victims felt it necessary to speak out, and both say they feel more comfortable doing so now that they know law enforcement is on their side.

“Anything that will help this investigation, I wanted to do,” says Lisa, who requested her real name not be used.

“Now that the police are helping me, I feel more secure. Now, I feel protected. I feel like I have freedom to express and say what was happening,” says Juan.

***

Juan says he came to Canada in April 2018 based on the tantalizing promise of an amazing work opportunity.

“I was finishing my university degree in astronomy. In Mexico, I didn’t have any opportunities to work to earn some money,” he says.

“(The leader of the ring) was offering great salaries that would be impossible to acquire in Mexico,” says Juan. “I got in contact with them through one of my friends who was already in Canada working with them. He’s the one who gave me all their information, including their phone number.”

Juan says he was required to provide $1,800 before coming to Canada. He says he was told by the leader that the money would cover transportation and rent.

When Juan arrived in Barrie, he says he knew something was wrong right away.

“When I arrived, I saw 30 people living in one house. In the hallways, in the living room, in the kitchen... everywhere,” he says.

Juan says his work assignments were at a Collingwood-area resort. To get to work, Juan says 16 people would pile into a van intended for 12.

“Some of us would go in the trunk. Some, in between the seats ... everywhere,” he says.

Juan says that he has never signed any contracts or work applications since coming to Canada.

On his average day, Juan says the leader of the group would give workers a list the night before an assignment. In that list, the leader would provide instructions, including the place they would be working that day. In the morning, the van would arrive at 8 a.m. to take workers to assignments.

"(The leader) would prepare us in advance by telling us we could not talk to any person from the hotels. (The leader) said if they ever talked to us or if anyone approached us, that we needed to say that we worked for a company. If anyone asked us questions we were told to let them know that the company would answer any questions,” says Juan.

Juan says his regular work schedule was from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

“After our work hours, we had to wait for the others to be done. If they were not done, we had to wait for them in the van. We did not have any air conditioners or heaters in the van,” says Juan.

“(The leader) would tell the drivers to get us hot chocolate or coffee to keep us warm in the winter. In the summer, they would give us oranges so we wouldn’t be dehydrated.”

When asked what would happen if any of the workers would bring up leaving, Juan says the leader would tell workers that they had power both in Canada and Mexico.

“The only way you could leave is after a big fight. (The leader) would tell us we couldn’t do anything to them because we couldn’t speak English. (The leader) would threaten to send immigration or the police after us,” says Juan. “(They said), ‘I have the power to (harm) you, and you have nothing. You’re nobody.’”

Juan recounts that in one instance, he overheard the leader threatening violence through bodyguards, including threatening violence against family members of workers.

He also says there were incidents of work-related accidents where the leader would not allow workers to seek medical attention.

“I was very frustrated to a near-breaking point,” says Juan. “The environment was very chaotic. I was not happy working. We were literally slaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I just wanted to go back to Mexico, but it was impossible to save enough money to go back,” he said.

“They did allow us to talk to our families in Mexico, but they did not allow us to talk to people or friends in Canada,” he says.

Lisa first heard about jobs in Canada from a friend in early 2018.

“I have a friend who, two months before I came up, was already working in Canada,” says Lisa. “She convinced me to come work here to make money.”

Lisa says that different jobs were being offered. She says they included cleaning jobs, resort jobs or construction jobs.

“When they offered me the job, they asked me to have enough money to pay my rent. They told me it was going to be a bedroom in very good condition. They also asked me for money to reserve my flight tickets and a hotel when I arrived,” says Lisa. “When I got here, I never stayed at a hotel.”

Lisa says she forked over $1,600 to come to Canada.

Once in Barrie, Lisa says her job assignments tended to be in Barrie cleaning apartment buildings near Bayfield Street.

“I had to walk between buildings and carry all the cleaning supplies myself,” says Lisa. “They were very heavy and they didn’t care.”

Lisa says she first suspected something was wrong when she was told she was prohibited to speak to anyone while working.

She relays a story of an instance when one of the female workers inquired to the leader about holiday pay.

“Because she was asking questions she was not supposed to ask, (the leader) told her they could not pay her the same as someone with papers. From that day on, (the leader) did not give her any other jobs,” says Lisa.

Lisa says she received payment in cash, but the most she ever received in one month was $500.

“We were always writing down the time, and how much we were supposed to be getting paid, but it never matched with the cash that we were receiving,” she says.

While workers weren’t directly prohibited from going out at night, Lisa said if the leader found out, there would be repercussions.

“(The leader) would take away days of work,” says Lisa.

***

The morning of the rescue, Juan says he was awakened at 5 a.m. by police knocking on the door of the house he was living in in Barrie.

“They stepped inside the house and they started waking us up. They qualified that this was just an investigation and they gave us paperwork that was very clear and translated into Spanish. It specified that I was not under arrest and that I was not going to be deported,” he says.

Juan says the victims were all taken, with their permission, to a central location to have their health and well-being checked on by medical professionals.

“We were asked to please take a shower there, finally with hot water,” says Juan with a laugh, adding that they were also provided with clean clothes and food while waiting to see doctors for check ups.

“It was a long day. We had a lot of waiting. But the whole time, the police gave us medical attention, food and shelter,” says Juan.

Since being rescued, one of the Collingwood-area resorts that had used the contract services and the trafficked workers, upon being alerted to the incident, opened their doors to offer free rooms and proper employment to any victim that wanted it.

Juan took them up on their offer and is currently living at that resort and working there while trying to get his life in order.

“According to them, they didn’t know anything. They weren’t aware of what we were going through,” says Juan.

Looking forward, Juan and Lisa both intend to stay in Canada. They are both currently on six-month work visas, with plans to make their visas permanent.

“I would like to stay and work here,” says Juan.

“I want to become a good citizen for Canada. What I realize, after this, is that the police and the government are really taking care of people. I am very thankful and I feel that I owe them," he said.

“It’s sad to say this, but in Mexico we do not have job or work opportunities or safe places to live,” he says.

Lisa wants to learn English and work as well.

“My goal will be to, one day, work at a Mexican consulate, or at a place where I will be able to help people,” she says. “I would like to be able to translate for them to let them know what their rights are, and make sure they won’t go through what I went through."





Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings nine years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering county matters, court, Collingwood and Barrie matters
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