Working in Boston-area restaurants over the last 15 years, Billy often felt like a slave.
He was caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of labor and exploitation, striving to pay off debts, sick from stress and overwork, terrified about being turned over to immigration officials.
The 41-year-old Salvadoran immigrant said he started his first restaurant job in 2008. He worked as a dishwasher 85 hours a week, earning $6 an hour without breaks or overtime. His main goal was to pay off nearly $18,000 in debt he accrued to get to the United States. He lived in a series of rented rooms and worried about being picked up by immigration authorities. Over the years, he said a series of employers profited from this fear, threatening him with deportation.
“They multiply the work, they don’t pay you well, they don’t let you eat, they want you always there working, working, working like a slave,” said Billy in an interview in Spanish, requesting to only be identified by his nickname for fear of reprisals. “They have all the power.”
Nationwide, food services top the Department of Labor’s list of “low wage, high violation industries,” based on a high number of minimum wage and overtime violations, among other issues. In Massachusetts, the restaurant industry also tops a federal list of wage-and-hour law violators in the state.
This is bad news for workers, of course. But many labor specialists say wage theft and other violations also can be a symptom of a much more troubling crime: forced labor, or labor trafficking.
The distinction, based in federal law, hinges on whether people are being compelled to work through “the use of force, fraud or coercion.” Exploitative practices include forcing people to work to pay off debts or threatening “violence or some other form of punishment,” according to the federal Office on Trafficking in Persons.
And while wage and hour cases are not infrequent, trafficking violations are almost never pursued. Billy said he long understood he was a victim of wage theft, but now also believes he was trafficked, forced to work out of fear for what would happen if he stopped.
“We are afraid to speak out; we are afraid to confront the reality,” he said. “What I lived is very sad.”
Victims like Billy are all around us, anti-trafficking experts say, working for little or no pay in Massachusetts restaurants, construction sites, farms and as domestic workers in private homes. But an ongoing investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting found that often victims don’t know how to access help or even recognize that their abuse has reached the level of trafficking. They go largely unseen in what is often called modern day slavery.
The restaurant industry — with some 16,000 eating and drinking establishments in the state — is a vibrant part of the Massachusetts economy. But labor advocates say conditions also are prone to exploitation in businesses that often are open morning until night, powered by low-wage and immigrant labor, especially in the “back of the house” jobs like dishwashing, cleaning and food prep.
“It’s hard work, fast work, demanding work, dangerous in the sense of people burning themselves, cutting themselves,” said Thomas Smith, executive director of a Boston nonprofit called Justice at Work. “It’s the kind of work that people who have other options, they’re not going to want to do. You have a workforce that is more easily exploitable.”
GBH News interviewed a half dozen restaurant workers who said they were trapped in low-wage, long-hour restaurant jobs but were too afraid to speak up — worried about their immigration status or how they would survive without work, even work they knew was exploitative. Details about 80-hour work weeks, lack of overtime pay and sub-minimum wage salaries were a common thread.
Stephen Clark, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said it’s unfair to link wage and hour violations to trafficking. He said wage and hour complaints can include many types of paperwork or technical issues such as incorrectly filling out a teenage work permit or miscalculating overtime. There’s a small number of documented violations compared to the enormous size of the industry, he argued. “By painting with a broad brush, it is a disservice to the 99% of operators that are doing the right thing,” Clark told GBH News in an email.
Others, like Northampton labor advocate Alfonso Neal, say exploitation is so pervasive that it is hard to enjoy a meal out.
“Just knowing what they go through, in the struggles that they have: the health and safety violations, the exploitation, the wage theft, it really does make going out to sit down at a restaurant a little bit harder,” said Neal, who is the executive co-director of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.
Last fall, federal prosecutors filed human smuggling charges against owners of two Brazilian restaurants in Woburn, Massachusetts, alleging they employed workers who were smuggled into the United States, put to work for long hours with little or no pay, while facing huge debts for the cost of their trip and threats of deportation or worse if they complained.
Now some anti-trafficking advocates say prosecutors missed an opportunity to file trafficking charges against the two men and send a message that alleged labor abuse is taken seriously in Massachusetts. Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law, said documents filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachustts describe signs of forced labor, including debt bondage and coercion.
“We see extreme red flags of trafficking in this case,” she said. “I find it troubling that in a case like this, it sounds like there are victims who are involved in the process, but they’re identified as informants, not as victims.”
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the Woburn case. Federal prosecutors in Massachusetts have only won a single forced labor case in the state in more than 20 years while state prosecutors have not yet won a case at all, GBH News found.
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins told GBH News in September that she wants to see more forced labor prosecutions. She created a human trafficking unit in her office and plans to increase education to prevent abuse and bring more cases forward.
“It is vastly underreported. It is vastly underinvestigated and it is vastly underprosecuted,” Rollins said. “My hope is that we’re going to be talking about this a lot more in the very near future.”
Smuggling or trafficking?
On an early October morning, federal and local law enforcement officials swooped into Woburn to raid two small Brazilian restaurants, Taste of Brazil and the Dog House Bar and Grill.
They lugged out boxes of evidence and arrested a father-and-son team, Jesse and Hugo Moraes, who were accused of working with a family member in Brazil to recruit workers who allegedly racked up huge debts to come to the United States.
The men pleaded not guilty and were released while the case makes its way through the federal court. They were charged with “conspiring to encourage and induce an alien to come to, enter and reside in the United States for the purpose of commercial advantage or private gain.”
An attorney for Jesse Moraes declined to comment for this story. Boston attorney Paul Kelly, who represents Hugo Moraes, said evidence will prove that his client is not guilty.
“We are confident that the evidence in this case will demonstrate that Mr. Moraes had no involvement in any ‘human smuggling’ activities or any effort to knowingly evade the law,” Kelly wrote in an email. “Our client has worked hard over many years to build his restaurant business and to provide a quality product and welcoming customer service in the City of Woburn.”
None of the witnesses were identified in court records, their genders obscured by neutral pronouns. But their stories describe a life of fear, poverty and hard labor.
One witness told federal investigators that they paid $32,000 to smuggle their four-member family into the United States. They said they were installed in a house owned by a relative of the Moraes family, paid $3 an hour, working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. When they complained, they said owners told them they would no longer be able to live at the house; Jesse told them if they did not cooperate, “they would call immigration and have them deported,” according to court records.
WATCH: GBH Investigation finds labor trafficking in Mass. restaurants underreported
Another worker said they agreed to pay $22,000 to come to the United States with three children but soon wished they’d never come. They said they worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., earning about $100 in cash a week. They were confused by what they were getting paid and how much was going to pay off their debt. “I even thought of going back to Brazil, but how can I go back?” the witness was quoted as saying in a recorded conversation. “I don’t even know how much I owe.”
Talia Barrales, a Boston-based immigration attorney, said she’s frustrated that the owners were not charged with trafficking. Barrales said the threats allegedly received by immigrant workers are a sign of force, and the troubling work conditions are a sign they were defrauded to come to the United States.
“If these people were told … ‘You’re going to come into a situation where you’re never going to stop working, your debt will be held against you the whole time, you have no security, we have all the control for you,’ I don’t know if all of them would sign up for that,” she said.
Milagros Barreto, director of the Immigrant Worker Center for the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health, said it’s disappointing to have workers tell their stories and not be treated as victims.
“It’s not easy to make a person talk about those traumas. It’s really, really, really difficult,” she said. “And then when you do it you are expecting something: justice.”
“If these people were told … ‘You’re going to come into a situation where you’re never going to stop working, your debt will be held against you the whole time, you have no security, we have all the control for you,’ I don’t know if all of them would sign up for that.”
Talia Barrales, immigration attorney
Criminal charges like the smuggling case filed in Woburn — even without trafficking allegations — are rare. In most cases, restaurant owners are charged with violating federal and state wage and hour laws.
In fiscal year 2022, the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General assessed more than more than $951,000 in penalties and restitution for wage and hour cases in the hospitality industry, impacting more than 1,500 workers.
In October, a federal court ordered the owners of two Boston restaurants to pay nearly $200,000 in back wages and other penalties. The ruling came after a Department of Labor investigation found the restaurants had failed to pay some workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, as well as violated overtime requirements.
Owners of the two restaurants, Simco’s Roslindale and Simco’s Mattapan, could not be reached for comment.
Carlos Matos, the Department of Labor’s wage and hour district director for the Boston office, told GBH News that his investigators often find problems in restaurants. “It’s a low wage industry where you’re going to have issues,” he said. “We find them a lot.”
He said his staff receives training on how to identify trafficking, and if indicators are found, works to help victims and collaborate with law enforcement. But the local Department of Labor office has just 16 investigators to research labor complaints or proactively visit work sites amidst all industries in the state.
Jose Benitez of Arlington said even when workers speak up, there’s seldom justice. In 2017, Benitez joined a dozen workers to file a civil suit against a chain of local restaurants for unpaid wages, lack of overtime and threats. Benitez said the group, frustrated by lack of pay, walked out one day and closed the doors behind them. The case ended in an undisclosed settlement, which Benitez described as minimal. “What do I gain by talking about this?”’ he asked in Spanish. “Most people don’t say anything.”
Nancy Rodridguez said she’s comfortable using her name now because she has legal working papers.
But after emigrating from El Salvador in 2014, she said she took a job at a North End restaurant, making $10 an hour in cash by washing dishes, cleaning toilets and prepping food. She said she worked 12 hours a day — without a break or overtime pay — for about three years. But what really troubled her, she said, was how her boss treated her.
“The owner was very abusive. He yelled at you, he insulted you,” she said in Spanish. “I thought because I didn’t have a Social Security number in this country, I couldn’t say anything. I was very afraid.”
She said she finally quit, walking out in tears, after a verbal altercation and now works at a local fast food chain that treats her fairly. She never filed an official complaint against her employer. Looking back, she said she’s not sure if she was officially a victim of trafficking or a lower level of exploitation, but it doesn’t really matter to her anymore.
“I was a victim,’’ she said.
Amy Farrell, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, said if regulators spent more time listening to workers and focusing on lower-level crimes, they could stop exploitation before it develops into trafficking. She and fellow researchers have been looking at federal trafficking cases in different industries and finding that before there was forced labor at a business, there was a trail of wage and hour violations.
“These are all the places where, actually, had anyone been paying attention to this at these earlier points, we could have stopped this,” she said. “This could have been stopped before the network became more sophisticated. This could have been stopped before the harm happened.”
Smith, of Justice at Work, believes in providing more resources to labor groups that empower exploited workers. He resists the word “victim” for those seeking a better life.
“They’re already leaders, given the life experiences and the challenges they’ve overcome,’’ he said.
The courage to fight back
Billy is a small, lean man with short jet black hair and a gentle demeanor.
He loves working in a kitchen. He likes to feed people. He’s proud of his professional progress, starting as a dishwasher and now working as a cook.
But he’s also struggled with the psychological trauma of grueling hours with little pay and verbal abuse from a series of bad bosses. He said he’s worked in about eight restaurants since his arrival in Massachusetts, and describes half of them as exploitative.
He said he is Catholic, and his religion also has helped him through his struggles.
He said after several years at his first job he joined forces with a group of employees to seek back wages. He learned about his rights — that undocumented workers also need to be paid the prevailing wage — with the help of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “They taught me how to value and learn about the benefits in this country,’’ he said.
Billy first spoke to GBH News willing to use his full name in hopes of helping others better understand their rights. Later, he requested anonymity after realizing that he’d signed a confidentiality agreement with another one of his former employers he’d challenged in a court dispute about overtime, and was afraid of reprisals. He said he’s healthier now, physically and mentally, and works (only) 45 hours a week at a Boston-area restaurant, earning $21 an hour.
He also has spoken with an attorney who is helping him seek what is called a T-visa for people who can prove they were victims of a severe form of trafficking. He’s hopeful to obtain legal papers and to be able to be more open with his advocacy.
“We remain hidden, like prisoners in this country,” he said. “I’m tired of being a prisoner.”
GBH reporters Phillip Martin and Sarah Betancourt contributed to this story. The ongoing series Trafficking Inc. is part of a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners.