Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Alleged labor trafficking victim tells of mistreatment in Racine County

From The Journal Times.com:

This tip about farm laborers at Borzynski Farms being held “preso,” Spanish for prisoners, was received in 2016 by the state Department of Workforce Development. DWD's investigation did not uncover labor trafficking, but a federal investigation resulted in criminal charges against five people associated with the farm labor contractor who hired the workers. Yellow highlighting added by Wisconsin Watch.

In 2016, “Roberto” legally came to the United States for the same reason many immigrants do — to earn a living and a slice of the American dream. But Roberto, a native of southern Mexico, says he suffered a nightmare of coercion, financial exploitation, threats and mistreatment while working on a Georgia farm and, later, at cabbage patches in southeastern Wisconsin owned by Borzynski Farms.

Roberto arrived in the United States legally under an H-2A visa, which allows seasonal farm laborers to work for specific employers. Roberto says he was forced to pay a fee and turn over the deed to his parents’ property to an intermediary in Mexico as security for his continued work in the United States.

When Roberto arrived in Georgia, the situation was not at all what the recruiter had described. There were hundreds of workers — all men, all from Mexico — living together in cramped barracks and isolated from nearby towns, he said.

 “The same day you arrive, that same day they ask you for your passport. They take all of your personal documents,” Roberto said of the contractors, who hired out workers to farms growing squash, cucumbers and cilantro in southern Georgia.


No talking to strangers


The boss warned Roberto and the other workers that there were ground rules.

“He tells us to get it in our heads that we came to work,” Roberto recalled. “No matter what, they don’t want us talking to any strangers — people that are not from the work site. And that we couldn’t leave either — work, and then back to the house.”

Roberto — not his real name — is among 14 men from Mexico who were allegedly victimized by a labor-trafficking scheme that transported legal temporary farm workers from Georgia to work illegally at Borzynski Farms in Mount Pleasant, according to an indictment in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin announced May 22.

He spoke exclusively to Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch in 2017, before the indictment, and has asked through his attorneys to remain anonymous to avoid potential retribution. At their request, WPR and Wisconsin Watch delayed publication of the interview to avoid compromising the investigation.

Five family members from Garcia & Sons, a farm labor contractor from Moultrie, Georgia, have been charged with labor-trafficking related counts. They are Saul Garcia, 49; Saul Garcia, Jr., 26; Daniel Garcia, 28; Consuelo Garcia, 45; all of Moultrie, Georgia; and Maria Remedios Garcia-Olalde, 52, a Mexican national. Attorneys for the Garcias declined requests for an interview.

Two of the defendants — the elder Saul Garcia and Garcia-Olalde — also were indicted on obstruction charges for allegedly withholding or falsifying evidence, including trying to keep one of the alleged victims from testifying before a federal grand jury. A trial date has not been set.

The federal case developed after the state Department of Workforce Development investigated the farm in 2016. The UMOS Latina Resource Center in Milwaukee relayed a tip to the state agency that the workers were being held like “prisoners,” according to records obtained under the state public records law.

But spokesman Ben Jedd said the agency was unable to substantiate the allegation after interviewing each worker. DWD did issue a warning to the elder Saul Garcia for preventing workers from cooperating with efforts to investigate the working conditions.

Records indicate federal investigators had already begun their work before DWD ended its inquiry, but it remains unclear who contacted federal authorities. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee declined to describe the origins of the case, which was investigated by the FBI, the U.S. departments of Labor and Homeland Security and the Racine Police Department.

Jedd said DWD, under Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, is “evaluating our current programs and providing educational awareness to our employees” to better detect labor trafficking.

Farm ‘disheartened’ by allegations


The owners of Borzynski Farms said they knew nothing of the conditions under which the men worked or that they were allegedly trafficked.

“Borzynski Farms is disheartened that its fields and facilities may have been used by Garcia & Sons to exploit or cause harm to any worker,” the farm’s attorney, Stephen Kravit, said in a statement.

Borzynski Farms said in a statement to multiple media outlets in May that it contracted with Garcia & Sons, whose chief financial officer is listed as Saul Garcia, for harvesting services during the time period covered in the indictment. Borzynski Farms did not respond to a request for comment from The Journal Times.

The farm, which also has operations in Texas, Illinois and Georgia, grows produce including cabbage, sweet corn, leafy greens and green beans.

Borzynski's Farm Market in Mount Pleasant sells produce grown in Wisconsin, including cabbage, sweet corn, leafy greens and green beans. A federal indictment alleges 14 men from Mexico were forced to work illegally in nearby fields owned by the Borzynskis in 2016. The owners of the farm said in a statement that they had no knowledge of the alleged trafficking.

Read more:  https://journaltimes.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/fainting-and-freezing-in-the-fields-alleged-labor-trafficking-victim/article_b5d83bac-a671-5b92-8b35-26ebdce99d5a.html

No comments: