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."
The alleged abuse occurred during the 2012-2013 forestry season, according to a search warrant application filed by federal agents. The workers came from Hidalgo, Mexico, brought here by a Texas-based labor contractor under the guest worker program with H-2B visas. They were flown or driven to Northern California by Pure Forest owners Jeff and Owen Wadsworth, according to court documents, and were split into four groups. Each group was led into remote parts of the forest under the supervision of a Pure Forest supervisor.
Workers told special agents for the DOL their passports were taken as soon as they arrived at their first work site, just outside Gerber, California. The supervisors promised they would be returned when their work was complete, which was supposed to take eight months. Wagner said it's a common practice in labor trafficking.
"A common thing throughout labor trafficking is retention of passports or travel documents or identity documents which restricts the mobility of the laborer. So they are at the mercy of the people who are exploiting them," Wagner said.
When the workers arrived at their campsite, they said they found a cluster of tents for them to sleep in, not the sturdy trailers they had been promised by recruiters. Each morning, the workers reported, they were driven to a work site where they performed exhausting labor for up to 13 hours a day, six days a week. That work included spraying chemicals, which their recruiters had promised they would not be doing. A pair of gloves and blue overalls, they said, was the only protective clothing provided.
"It's really difficult to even think about guys doing this kind of work 10 to 12 hours a day and then coming home to sleep on the dirt in a tent with the little bit of food that they get from the camp fire," Rice said. "It harkens back to conditions that none of us would want anyone in the United States to have to work under."
The workers say the overalls and gloves provided little protection against the chemicals that stained them purple and caused vomiting, skin peeling and burning in their eyes. Sometimes they sprayed into trees, causing the chemicals to rain down on their faces. The chemical containers strapped to their backs sometimes leaked, causing chemical burns, according to the statements they gave to investigators.
On Sundays, the workers said, they went to town to wash their clothes under the watchful eye of a supervisor, who made sure they didn't talk to anyone. But workers say the laundromat owner eventually told them not to come back - the chemicals on their clothes were staining the machines. The workers had to buy a used washing machine with the little money they had, according to a civil suit filed by some of the workers against Pure Forest.
They were also forced to pay for their food, they say. They said the salty pieces of meat often appeared spoiled. The food was served by the father of a Pure Forest supervisor, to whom workers had to pay up to $240 every two weeks. According to the Department of Labor, the rules of the H-2B visa program state workers must be provided nutritious meals by their employer, free of charge.
Drinking water was also pumped straight from a nearby river without any kind of sterilization, according to the DOL. A Butte County environmental health specialist told investigators the river was "absolutely not acceptable" as a source for drinking water, even with filtering, chlorination, or UV treatment. Pure Forest supervisor Jose Amador also confirmed this during an interview with DOL agents, according to court documents.
Threats of violence by Pure Forest supervisors made the situation even worse, according to the workers. Two Pure Forest foremen, Pedro and Arturo Carbajal, reportedly carried guns and threatened to shoot workers in the head if they didn't work hard enough. Sometimes they would fire their weapons without warning in a display of intimidation, workers said. Pedro Carbajal allegedly told workers he would send them back to Mexico, or worse, take them to prison if they couldn't handle the workload.
Pedro Carbajal is the only Pure Forest employee who has been arrested up to this point, charged with being an "illegal alien in possession of a firearm", but Wagner says the investigation continues. Search warrants were served at Pure Forest business locations in California and Idaho, as well as the homes of some employees. Computers and other records were seized, according to court documents.
In a jailhouse interview with News10, Carbajal vehemently denied the allegations against him.
"I never forced anybody to work," Carbajal said. "When we worked together, we worked freely. Everyone worked at their own pace."
Wagner says he hopes these prosecutions will compel victims of labor trafficking to come forward with their stories. All too often, he said, cultural barriers or fear of deportation prevents workers from reporting abuse.
"They're entitled to rights like other people are, in terms of federal minimum wage, safe and sanitary working conditions, living conditions, drinkable water, certain guarantees with respect to hours, humane treatment, and so forth," he said.
Visa fraud, wage theft and bribery
Seized emails, paper records and interviews with Pure Forest employees show Pure Forest illegally took money from their migrant workers, engaged in bribery and possibly committed visa fraud, according to the DOL.
When Pure Forest wanted to hire 25 guest workers in 2012 to work on the Sierra Pacific contract, they had to offer the open positions to U.S. workers first. That's a rule under the guest worker program to ensure American workers get first crack at potential jobs. The DOL says Pure Forest received applications from 10 American workers, but told the Department of Labor they only had five. None of those workers were hired for the contract, according to documents obtained by the DOL.
The workers were often left with as little as $100 for two weeks of work after illegal deductions were made from their paychecks, they told investigators. They said the Wadsworths made workers pay $2,000 out of their paychecks to cover the cost of their visas. That cost is supposed to be covered by the employer, not the employee, according to the rules of the guest worker program. Migrant workers have little recourse in these situations, Rice said, even if the employer is clearly violating the law.
"The employer has such great levels of control over the worker that they can pretty much do what they want," Rice said. "So unless you have someone who by virtue of their own good nature or their desire to be a good business person, to be a good employer, the ability to exploit a worker is largely unfettered."
Pure Forest supervisor Jose Amador confirmed the $2,000 visa deductions in an interview with DOL investigators. Amador also told investigators the Wadsworths had a history of using undocumented workers. Emails between Jeff and Owen Wadsworth that were seized by the DOL allegedly discussed obtaining possibly fraudulent immigration documents.
Pure Forest LLC is a family run company that provides reforestation and other related services to several clients on the West Coast. Recently, Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth, the managers and operators of the company, were served with a law suit filed by a few disgruntled former employees. The civil suit alleges several acts of mistreatment and abuse. As a result of these allegations, a federal investigation was initiated.
The allegations came after the disgruntled employees' failed attempt at obtaining money from the company by filing frivolous injury and unemployment benefit claims. Interviews of company employees and client foresters, who supervised the foresting operation during the time of the alleged abuse, reveal that none of the allegations are true.
Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth pride themselves on the well-treatment of all their employees and are surprised and saddened that a group of former employees have chosen to bring such allegations. While we do not know whether the claims were brought in order to extort money or to obtain victim immigration benefits, we are confident that the truth will prevail.
"If people realize that you can't exploit laborers in an illegal way and that there will be enforcement, it will change the culture for the better," Wagner said. "And really, what we're aiming for is prevention, deterring the behavior in the first place. We realize it's going to take some cases to do that, but hopefully in the long term that'll happen."
Wagner said there are already avenues for victims to report exploitation. Victims can report abuse to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor or the FBI. The number for the FBI hotline in the Sacramento area is (916) 481-9110.
Victims not comfortable with law enforcement can report abuse to the people at the Polaris Project. They have a tip line victims can call at 1 (800) 3730-7888. They can also text the word "help" to "BeFree"/233-733.
Rice is pleased the Department of Justice is prosecuting this case, but says there is a long way to go toward fixing the greater problem of abuse in the guest worker program. Workers who have gone through the program, she said, are not coming back because they rarely make the money they were promised.