Human trafficking has exploded in Canada: Between 2010 and 2016, the annual number of cases has increased 11 fold, according to a parliamentary report published in December. The majority of incidents — 66 per cent — happened in Ontario, with 14 per cent in Quebec, 8 per cent in Alberta, and the rest spread across Canada.
In total, 1,099 incidents were reported during the period, with 32 per cent involving foreign nationals being brought into the country. Although Statistics Canada does not differentiate between sex trafficking and labour trafficking data, the report said the majority of reported incidents involved women being forced into the sex trade.
Migrants’ advocates say Canada’s growing reliance on foreign workers — the number of temporary foreign workers has almost doubled in the past decade, to 300,000 in 2017 — has greatly contributed to the surge of labour trafficking because precarious immigration status makes people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
With poor English, little money and threats by traffickers, workers are reluctant to come forward out of fear for the safety of loved ones back home and their own possible deportation from Canada, making investigation and prosecution difficult for officials, said the advocates, who believe labour trafficking is grossly under-reported for those reasons.
“Foreign workers are recruited overseas and often tied to the people who bring them here. They have no permanent status and are ineligible for community services,” said Loly Rico of Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre, which is part of the Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network, a six-year-old grassroots umbrella group that meets regularly to share information on trafficking and advocate for victims.
“These workers do jobs that most Canadians do not want to do. They are just cheap labour and don’t get the same attention as victims of sex trafficking.”
February’s rescue operation was among the largest labour trafficking raids in Ontario. Investigation officials collaborated with advocates to take a “victims-first” approach, making the safety and well-being of the migrant workers a priority over arrests of suspects.
Since the raids, the rescued workers were sheltered at no costs at the Living Water Resort in Collingwood, which also hired some of them full time.
Living Water owner Larry Law said the community has come together to help the workers by organizing English classes and Spanish church services, while the town has offered them two months of free public transit. So far, half of the workers are working at Living Water while the rest have moved out after taking jobs offered outside of the community.
“We are just so happy to see them turning over a new leaf in Canada,” said Law.
Authorities said complaints by the workers in Barrie first surfaced in 2015. In addition to Contreras, the Star tracked down two other workers who had lived in the houses arranged by the temp agency. Their stories share common threads: promised jobs, betrayals, desperation, debts and threats.
Rodrigo Jesus Vazquez Medina ran a small garage in Merida, a city off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. After he fell behind on a loan to purchase equipment for his shop, an acquaintance in Mexico gave him the phone number of the recruiter in Canada who “offers lots of jobs.” Medina borrowed $3,000 from family for his trip to Canada.
“I was making $300 a month in Mexico, and I was told I could earn as much as $1,000 every two weeks here, at $13 an hour. That’s good money. They said I wouldn’t need a visa and they could find me jobs once I’m here,” recalled Medina, 31, who has two teenage children back home.
Upon arriving at Pearson airport last November, he waited hours to be interviewed by immigration. “I was told by the recruiter to tell them that I wanted to come here to see the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and the (Ripley’s) aquarium,” he recalled. “They even made a fake hotel reservation for me.”
After leaving customs at midnight, he called a number he was given by the recruiter. A driver picked up Medina and another worker who was on the same flight, and dropped them off at the Dunlop St. house, charging each $150 for the trip.
Medina said he slept on a couch in the living room that night. When he got up the next morning, he was shocked by what he saw.
“We had about 30 people living there, some staying in the attic, some sleeping in the hallways. People put their mattresses on top of used tires, cardboard and forklift wood platforms because it’s too cold on the floor,” said Medina. “It wasn’t what I had expected.”
Work placements and other communication by the recruiters were arranged through the group messaging tool WhatsApp. On Medina’s fourth day in the house, he was finally assigned to work at one of six hotels, including Nottawasaga Inn, Hockley Valley and Living Water resorts, according to work schedules sent to them by the recruiter on the app.
Police have said the hotels were not aware of the alleged human trafficking operation.
Nottawasaga and Hockley Valley did not return the Star’s repeated requests for comment.
Medina said he and his housemates didn’t work every day, but sometimes shifts were 12 hours long. Due to his background in mechanics, Medina said he was also sometimes sent to do light construction jobs. He said he was paid about $400 in cash for two weeks of work.
“I wasn’t making any money at all. I had no money to pay off my debt or send to my kids. I was just making enough to stay in this horrible house,” Medina said.
Iran Yesmin Lazeano Cabrera, who fled from a Livingstone St. residence operated by the same Barrie recruiter, shared a similar experience.
The 42-year-old mother of three said coming to Canada was her esa era mi ultima carta — “my last card” — after her husband left her with three children and a huge debt to a Colombian loan shark that she couldn’t repay.
Last fall, her sister heard about a lawyer in the Mexican port city of Veracruz who could help people find jobs in Canada. They went to the storefront law office and were asked to pay almost $2,100 “to start the process” — money that her sister paid by selling her car.
“I sat my children down over our dining table. I told them I tried everything to pay off the debt and I needed to take a gamble. This is our last card. This is our only way out,” recalled Cabrera, who arrived Toronto from Puebla last November.
“My eldest one, only 17, said she would look after the two little ones,” she recalled, sobbing. “My kids were expecting to come and join me once I got a steady job and settled.”
When Cabrera arrived at Pearson, a pre-arranged driver took her to the three-bedroom house on Livingstone St. in Barrie, where she immediately had to hand over $400 rent. There were already 13 tenants there, all from Mexico.
“I just remembered seeing a lot of men in the house. There was one bedroom for the women, but there was just one bed. I asked them where my bed was. They told me they would buy me a mattress and it would be deducted from my paycheque,” said Cabrera, who was left with just $50 in her pocket after paying the driver and the rent.
The next morning she met with the recruiter.
“The recruiter said only hard workers could stay and my future depended on my behaviour. She told me that I work for her but I can’t tell anyone,” said Cabrera, who was later taken shopping to get a blanket, a foam mattress and two black T-shirts as uniforms — the costs of which were all to be deducted from her pay.
Three days later, she says she was placed at a job and moved to another house in Wasaga Beach, which she shared with six men and one woman.
“There’s no Wi-Fi at the house and I couldn’t talk to my children. I started to feel really bad. I was depressed and anxious. There were other workers coming and going. I did not feel safe there,” said Cabrera, who at that point had yet to be paid and only had $3 left.
“I borrowed another worker’s phone and called the driver who picked me up at the airport. I told her I needed to leave. She came to get me and I ended up staying with her.
“It just felt like a very bad dream,” said Cabrera, who had tried unsuccessfully to retrieve her owed wages. (She says the recruiter told her that, after deductions that included a $175 fine for abandoning her job, there was nothing left).
“I came here for work. If I had known it’s going to be like this, there’s no way I would have come to Canada. But it’s too late. I have no money. I have a debt to pay in Mexico. I can’t go back to my kids with nothing.”
Contreras, a native from Tabasco who met Medina at the Dunlop St. house, said the two decided to leave Barrie when they went eight days without a work assignment. When they posted on a Facebook page for Mexicans in Toronto looking for jobs in the city, they were offered temporary shelter. After doing day labour jobs in demolition and renovation, a Mexican man hired them for a month to clear snow on construction sites in Muskoka, and offered them room and board.
“It was the first time in Canada where I could sleep in a real bed, with sheets and pillows,” said a smiling Contreras, who ran a small business in Mexico making and installing awnings to support his daughter through university.
“People treat us differently because we have no (immigration) paper. We have no English and others take advantage of us.”
Both men have recently found jobs in construction in Toronto, with Contreras working on insulation and Medina as a welder. Like Cabrera, the pair are hoping to obtain a temporary residence permit to stay and work in Canada until they save up enough money to return home.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung