One of the largest “labour human trafficking” investigations in Ontario has resulted in the rescue of more than 40 foreign workers who were allegedly being “paid peanuts” and living in squalor.
The workers — predominantly from Mexico on visitor visas and who were working as cleaners at hotels and resorts in Simcoe County — were removed from their residences and many are now being sheltered in a local hotel.
“They were exhausted, but relieved to be out of the situation,” said a hotel operator, who had employed some of the workers through a temp agency, and who on Thursday freed up some of his rooms to host the rescued workers.
In pre-dawn raids Tuesday, more than 100 officers from Barrie police, Canada Border Services Agency and Ontario Provincial Police targeted six locations in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, and transported the rescued men and women to a church, where they were interviewed and provided with food and clothing.
“It’s a huge joint operation among the law enforcement agencies,” a source familiar with the investigation told the Star. “The workers were paid peanuts after all the deductions for food, rent and mattresses,” said the law enforcement source, who called the situation “exploitative.”
In a statement, Barrie police said public safety was not in jeopardy.
“We are still doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work and anything specific to the investigation has to wait until a news conference (expected in the coming days.) Persons of interest have been identified and the investigation remains ongoing,” said Peter Leon, a spokesperson for Barrie police.
According to the law enforcement source, allegations of a labour human trafficking operation first surfaced in 2015, when complaints by former workers began trickling in. An in-depth investigation ensued at the beginning of last summer after authorities received further leads, the source said.
Investigating human trafficking can be challenging because people often don’t speak English, are unfamiliar with their new environment and are afraid to disclose their identities and details of allegations.
The workers were allegedly recruited through Facebook, social media and word of mouth for job opportunities in Canada, said the source.
According to authorities, the workers were regularly picked up from their residences and transported to various job sites throughout Simcoe County aboard yellow school buses.
After Tuesday’s rescue, including from a house on Dunlop St. E., in Barrie, the men and women were taken to a temporary victims’ assistance centre set up at a local church, where they were tended to by Salvation Army workers.
On Thursday, after spending two days at government shelters, most of the workers were chauffeured in VIP vans and moved into a local hotel.
“We had a breakfast gathering here this morning and our volunteers gave them a warm welcome,” said the hotel owner, who asked not to be identified so as not to reveal the location of the workers.
“We decided to pick them up in VIP vans so they wouldn’t be paranoid about getting into a school bus again,” the hotel owner said. “We called the van services and they offered to transport them at no cost.”
Although many of the workers had overstayed their visas, they will be issued temporary residence permits, which will allow them to stay and work in Canada on a temporary basis, said the law enforcement source.
“They were relieved to be out of that situation, but they didn’t think of themselves as victimized,” said the source. “They were (allegedly) taken advantage of by the traffickers, but said things are still better here because everything is so bad at home.”
The hotel operator, who is now housing the workers, said he learned of the police raids on Tuesday when OPP officers arrived at his premises and informed him his cleaners would not be showing up.
“We don’t speak Spanish. We only knew these workers were Mexicans. We paid directly to a temp agency and had no idea how they were treated. We just assumed they all had proper status and were treated fairly,” said the businessman.
“We just feel so shocked and sad from a moral and humanitarian point of view, and wanted to do something to support them.”
The workers have told volunteers that finding jobs and housing are their priorities, and they hope local employers will give them a helping hand.
“I hope other hotels and companies will step up to help, out of love. I’m sure some can take rooms out from their business and host some of these workers for free, and just treat them with warmth and dignity,” said the hotel owner.
He noted that the cleaners at his hotel were contracted through a Barrie-based temporary employment agency called RTL Services.
Kevin Kielty, whose name RTL was registered under, declined to comment for the story when reached by the Star by phone on Thursday. In a followup text, Kielty wrote: “I will be in touch when the time is right.” As recently as January, the company was advertising for full-time “hardworking housekeepers.”
Barrie Police said the investigation is continuing and no arrests have been made.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung