Report: Immigrant workers may be robbed of wages, forced into bad conditions

Immigrant and other local workers may be robbed of their wages, forced to work under oppressive conditions and sometimes even treated like virtual slaves.

That's according to the group Advocates for Human Rights, which on Tuesday laid out a plan to address worker exploitation.

The report makes a wide range of recommendations. They include raising awareness of labor trafficking and exploitation, encouraging and enabling victims to come forward without fear, and providing support services for them.

However, it's hard to measure the extent of the problem in Minnesota, the organization says. Victims are typically afraid to come forward.

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But the group says its research suggests various forms of physical or financial abuse abuse are pervasive problems, showing up among domestic workers, janitors, farmhands and other workers who are often vulnerable.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of the organization, says the first step needed is to gather better information.

"We need to better ID and measure the problem so that we know how to handle it, address victims and ultimately prevent this from happening," she said.

Some workers are trapped in bad situations, Garnett McKenzie said, perhaps fearing deportation because of their immigration status if they speak out. Or they feel there's nothing they can do when an employer doesn't pay them promised wages or otherwise mistreats them.

It's critical that exploited workers not be stopped from reporting crimes because they fear possible deportation, Advocates for Human Rights says.

"It is without question wrong for people to work without being free to leave, without being paid for what they are owed, to live in fear," she said. "That cannot happen here in our community and it is. And we need to stop that."

In Woodbury, a woman was recently charged with beating and starving a woman she brought from China to work as a nanny. The woman accused denies the charges.

Imran Ali, assistant attorney in Washington County, which is prosecuting the case, said the county is looking at other possible cases.

"This is a growing problem with widespread implications," Ali said. "It's not just Texas or California or Minneapolis or St Paul. It's here in Washington County. It's everywhere."

That includes Minnesota farming communities.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division and other regulators recently found a farmer in Foley, Minn., ripped off workers from the U.S. and Dominican Republic for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

David King, district director of the division, says the farmer failed keep his promises about paying for transportation and labor.

"The farmer charged for the transportation, failed to pay the agreed rate of pay, made illegal deductions from workers and charged a recruitment fee per hour worked to these workers," King said.

The farmer and his labor contractor were convicted of several crimes and are awaiting sentencing, according to King.

Law enforcement authorities and prosecutors need to know how to recognize worker exploitation, Ali said.

"We have to focus on the places in the communities where those individuals are more vulnerable," he said. "And we have to look at crimes differently. Not just as an assault. Not just as a theft. But what they truly are. And that indeed is this human and labor trafficking."