Thousands of miles from home, stained with toxic chemicals and threatened with guns, workers say they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. The migrant workers, all from Mexico, were in a foreign country and they say their passports had been confiscated by company supervisors.
That’s part of a story told to federal investigators from the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by a group of migrant workers employed by a forestry company called Pure Forest.
News10 began investigating Idaho-based Pure Forest, which is in the business of tree planting and tree thinning for Sierra Pacific Industries throughout Northern California, after workers alleged they were forced to endure horrendous conditions while working in the Sierra under temporary work visas.
The Department of Justice calls it forced labor trafficking. It’s another side of human trafficking, a more hidden side, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. The victims are often out of sight, held captive in family homes, restaurants, or remote work sites like the forests that cover the Sierra Nevada. Although Pure Forest denies the allegations against them, federal agents have served search warrants at multiple locations in California and Idaho and arrested one of their employees.
“On the labor side, it’s hard to say how widespread trafficking is because it’s not a crime that has really bright lines around it – easy to find, easy to see,” Wagner said. “But anecdotally, the evidence suggests that it is pretty widespread. The problem from the enforcement perspective is, unlike sex trafficking, it is often very difficult to find.”
As an advocate for migrant workers, Cynthia Rice, a staff attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, says she hears stories like this far too often. The guest worker program, she said, leaves migrant workers at the mercy of their employers, who can treat their workers as indentured servants.
“We’ve interviewed several workers who said they would never use this program again,” Rice said. “They really did feel that it was as close to slavery as you could get in a modern country.”