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Man charged in alleged labour trafficking involving 15 workers in Orillia

An Ontario Provincial Police logo is shown during a press conference, in Barrie, Ont., on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Fifteen workers who were promised work permits and a good salary in Ontario were made to live in cramped, dirty conditions, weren't paid properly and were threatened if they complained, police said Friday as announced human trafficking charges in the case.

The investigation by Ontario Provincial Police was among the latest in a series of recent human trafficking and labour exploitation probes that have resulted in charges in the province. 

Police said they began investigating after receiving a tip in November about alleged labour abuses related to a subcontracting company in Orillia, Ont. 

Investigators found that 15 people – all from Mexico and ranging in age from 21 to 54 – were brought over to Canada with the promise of work permits, training, housing and good pay. 

Instead, police allege, the workers were housed in two cramped and unsanitary homes, received partial or occasionally no payment, and were threatened with arrest, deportation or harm to their families in Mexico if they considered complaining to authorities. 

"The conditions of these residences were not what the victims had expected ... multiple victims shared a bedroom and often slept in shifts," said Det. Insp. Jane Conway.

Food was limited, police said, particularly as many workers were not paid and didn't have funds to buy meals. 

"The victims were afraid of the accused but were also terrified to get help," she said. The fear of arrest, deportation or possible actions toward family members are significant."

Police arrested the 59-year-old man who employed the workers earlier this month. He is charged with 11 counts of human trafficking and 10 counts of material benefits in trafficking. 

Conway said police expect more alleged victims to come forward. She added that any decision on potential deportations for the workers involved in the case would be up to other government agencies. 

Conway said labour human trafficking can be hard to track because of the movements of traffickers and their victims, as well as reluctance by victims to go to police. 

"Many people may be unaware of the trafficker's activities, which makes it hard to report," she said. "In addition, there's a lack of community education regarding human trafficking. Many victims do not identify themselves as victims due to the manipulation at the hands of their traffickers." 

Human trafficking in Ontario is often assumed to be sex trafficking, police said, but labour trafficking is a big concern. 

"It is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform labour through the use of force, fraud or coercion," Kari Dart, the OPP's acting deputy commissioner, said in a video statement.

Police in Halton Region, west of Toronto, also announced an arrest in a human trafficking investigation on Friday, saying a 37-year-old man faced multiple charges of human trafficking, as well as charges of withholding identity documents. 

They said the alleged victims were men who worked as general labourers on projects that included roofing, renovations and landscaping. 

Earlier this month, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton introduced a bill that would raise the penalty levied by labour inspectors for withholding employee passports or work permits from the current $250 to $100,000. 

If an individual employer is convicted of such an offence, they would also be subject to a fine of up to $500,000, up to 12 months in jail or both, while corporations could be fined up to $1 million. The current fines are $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for corporations.

In February, York Region police charged five members of an alleged human trafficking organization that lured Mexican nationals to Canada with false promises. Police said those workers were made to live and work in deplorable conditions. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Kiernan Green, The Canadian Press

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