Dozens of Mexican “modern day slaves” who were allegedly forced to work as cleaners at vacation properties in Ontario for as little as $50 per month have been freed and offered legitimate employment, police announced Monday.
The provincial police and the Barrie, Ont., force said they launched an investigation into the alleged scam last year after receiving multiple tips from the public.
They found that the alleged victims were lured to Canada believing they would be offered jobs and educational opportunities.
“Forty-three people were brought into Canada under misleading circumstances, and were promised a safer life and more opportunities,” said Barrie police Chief Kimberley Greenwood. “…these individuals are now free from the control of the people who wished to exploit them for their personal gain.”
The operation targeting the alleged human trafficking ring took place on Feb. 5 and also involved the Canada Border Services Agency, police said.
The Mexican workers have since been offered accommodations and legitimate employment at a local resort, said Greenwood, adding that those individuals are communicating with Immigration and Refugees Canada about their status in the country.
“We have to acknowledge that this is the first time that we have seen a labour human trafficking operation of this nature and size in our area,” she said.
The workers, whose hometowns were not released, arrived in Canada by plane, a police spokesman said.
“The 43 victims were transported to Canada, coached on what to say as they entered the country but then made to live in squalid conditions at locations in Barrie and Wasaga Beach,” OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum said. “From there, their situation only became worse.”
Barnum said the workers, who were mostly men, were driven to and from towns in central and eastern Ontario every day and forced to clean vacation properties and a hotel. They were made to pay their alleged traffickers large sums of money for transportation and housing, and were only allowed to keep less than $50 a month in some cases.
As many as 250 officers and support staff searched 12 properties last week and rescued the workers from their situation, Barnum said.
“One of the victims said to our officer, ‘Last night, I went to bed a slave. This morning, I woke up a free man,”’ he said.
Police are keeping close track of two people who were allegedly running the Barrie-based cleaning company that employed the foreign workers as the investigation continues, Barnum said, adding that criminal charges would be laid later.
“Let me be clear that we’re not taking away from the criminal acts that have been committed,” he said. “In fact, we aim to discover every dollar that these individuals profited from holding people as labour slaves. We intend to find a place at the end of this investigation where these people can have a long time to think about how they victimized others.”
For now, Barnum said, the workers’ needs are being put first.
“You can imagine how traumatic this experience has been for the victims, and possibly their loved ones and others who may be ensnared in this very same situation.”