Idaho Christmas Tree Company Accused of Human Trafficking
An Idaho Christmas tree company is facing a jolly old federal lawsuit alleging that they lured five men from Mexico to the United States with the promise of good, high-paying jobs only to force them into a brutal Dickensian nightmare in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
According to the lawsuit, the five men—who entered the U.S. legally on H-2B work visas in 2012—allege that Pure Forest LLC fed them rotting food, forced them to drink unsafe river water and spray chemicals on trees that burned their skin and made them sick without protective clothing or proper training.
They were also allegedly forced to work at gunpoint, and supervisors threatened to harm the worker's families in Mexico if they didn't work quickly or ever tried to leave.
"(The men) continued to work only because they had no other option. They were disoriented, confused, stuck in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada mountains miles from the nearest town, and they were in a foreign country where they did not speak the language."
According to the suit, the company recruited the workers from Hidalgo, Mexico, and promised the men 40-hour work weeks at $16.47 an hour for nine months. The company also promised to pay visa and travel expenses as well as meals and mobile homes.
But the suit alleges that instead they were given tents they had to share and had to buy their own sleeping bags from the company at $35 a pop, as well as paycheck deductions for food, travel, visa fees and other fees that cut their wages to well below state and federal minimum wage requirements—sometimes less than $50 a week for 70 hours of work.
The lawsuit also contends that supervisors for the company would shoot off their guns in the night to put a scare in the workers, and that a supervisor threatened to "put a bullet" in the head of one worker.
The company—a contractor that, in addition to cutting down Christmas trees, provided tree-thinning and pesticide-spraying services for an unnamed forest product company in California and Washington—also allegedly took the passports of at least two of the workers, who were all sent home with bus tickets purchased with money withheld from their last paychecks and a warning not to tell anyone about what happened.
The federal lawsuit was filed in April, but was put on hold for 120 days to allow for a criminal investigation into the allegations.
Four men—company executive Owen Wadsworth, Jose Luis Osorio, Arturo Carbajal and Pedro Carbajal—were listed as foremen for company in the lawsuit, but only Pedro Carbajal has to this point been charged in criminal court.
In May, Carbajal pleaded not guilty to charges of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm and an illegal alien in possession of ammunition. His trial is expected to start in November. According to court documents, Carbajal's wife says that Owen Wadsworth and company CEO Jeff Wadsworth gave him the gun—a 12-guage shotgun which he allegedly used to threaten workers.
In a statement, the company's attorney called the workers "disgruntled employees" who had previously tried to shake down the company for money through "frivolous injury" claims.
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.
Benjamin Wagner, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, told KTVB-TV that it's difficult to pin down exactly how often this sort of alleged trafficking goes on, but anecdotal evidence shows that it's "pretty widespread."
"The problem from the enforcement perspective is unlike sex trafficking, it is often very difficult to find," said Wagner.
Activists say that complaints like the one against Pure Forest are common—different work that what was promised, terrible working conditions and underpayment.
"(Workers) really did feel that it was as close to slavery as you could get in a modern country," said Cynthia Rice of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.