(Provided by Global News)
Forty-three foreign workers who were allegedly exploited by human traffickers now have housing and employment after police rescued them during raids in Barrie and Wasaga Beach last week.
During a news conference in Barrie Monday, police revealed a “very disturbing” operation that brought men from Mexico with promises of work visas, education or permanent residency.
Instead, the men were housed in squalid conditions and allegedly forced to work as cleaners in Collingwood, Innisfil, Oro-Medonte and Cornwall, and charged fees for accommodation and food.
“These workers were sometimes left with less than $50 a month,” deputy OPP commissioner Rick Barnum told reporters. “One of the victims told us ‘Last night, I went to bed a slave. This morning I am a free man.’”
The joint-investigation involving the OPP, Barrie police, and Canada Border Services Agency, used 250 front-line officers to execute 12 search warrants in Barrie and Wasaga Beach on Feb. 5 to rescue the workers, ranging in age from 20 to 46.
Barrie Police Chief Kimberly Greenwood said the operation took a “victims-first” approach, focusing on the safety of the workers before criminal charges against suspects.
Download the Microsoft News app to get breaking news, updates and analysis on your Android or iPhone device.
“They were given showers, food and medical assessments before any police interviews,” she said.
Greenwood credited Mapleview Community Church in Barrie for immediately taking in victims after the raids and a Simcoe County resort for providing housing and employment.
“To me, this is what it means to be Canadian — stepping up when you are needed. They are now free from the people who (allegedly) wished to exploit them for personal gain.”
A hotel operator who had hired some of the workers through a temporary employment agency has now freed up some of his rooms to house them.
“We paid directly to a temp agency and had no idea how they were treated,” he told the Star’s Nicholas Keung. “We just feel so shocked and sad from a moral and humanitarian point of view, and wanted to do something to support them.”
Police say the foreign workers were allegedly under the control of two people who operate a cleaning company out of Barrie. The company had contracts with three businesses in Collingwood as well as businesses in Oro-Medonte, Innisfil and Cornwall. Police say those companies were not aware of the alleged human trafficking operation.
Barnum told reporters the investigation continues as officers focus on who is behind the operation.
“This is modern-day slavery. We are not taking away from the criminal act,” he said. “We hope to discover where every dollar went.”
Also watch: ‘I went to bed a slave, woke up a free man’: Barrie human trafficking victim (Provided by Global News)
Barnum said investigators know the whereabouts of the two cleaning company operators and are looking for other possible suspects.
“We don’t know if there are more. These are difficult investigations. We don’t want to rush this.”
Police say the workers were recruited in Mexico, where they allegedly paid traffickers “large sums of money” to leave their homes to work in Canada.
“They were coached on what to say when they entered Canada,” Barnum said. “They were not here illegally.”
Andrew Robert, chief of Simcoe County paramedics, told simcoe.com the workers showed no signs of illness when they were assessed.
Robert praised the entire operation saying it was “quite moving” to see how the workers were treated as victims first by front-line responders.
Police are encouraging victims of alleged labour human trafficking to come forward.
“Whether it involves forced labour or the sex trade, human trafficking is not welcome and has no place in the community,” Greenwood said.
With files from Nicholas Keung