Utah advocate says labor trafficking getting more attention, more victims stepping forward

Attorney General Sean Reyes has made fighting trafficking a priority and a recent Davis County case brings the issue to the fore.

Attorney General Sean Reyes has made fighting trafficking a priority and a recent Davis County case brings the issue to the fore. (Zolnierek, Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Labor trafficking can take varied forms and impact a range of workers.

In Utah, victims typically come from abroad and work in landscaping, at massage parlors and at resorts, like ski operations, says Anthony Paco with the Salt Lake City-based Asian Association of Utah. It has been an ongoing issue, Paco said, but publicity when allegations make headlines — like the criminal trafficking charges filed late last year against several top officials at a Bountiful-based landscaping firm — raise awareness, prompting more victims to come forward.

"I think it's gotten more known in the community and that's why more people are reporting trafficking," Paco said. Another criminal case recently came to the fore against a Box Elder County rancher and County Commission candidate, Dusty Roche, which was filed last year and still winding through the court system.

In the Bountiful case, the officials from Rubicon Contractors face felony aggravated human trafficking charges accusing them of mistreatment of seven workers recruited from Mexico. Roche is charged along with his brother and father with felony trafficking on accusations of mistreatment of a ranch hand recruited from Mexico to work at the family operation, Roche Ranches Inc. The Rubicon officials and Roche have adamantly rejected the allegations against them as the cases proceed.

In September, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said migrant workers deserve "dignity and respect" after former Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson stepped down following accusations of mistreatment and failure to pay his employees.

"I sincerely hope that we treat everyone with the dignity and respect that they deserve — and that includes especially those who are here (who) are migrant workers who come here and work here and are so important in our agriculture industry," Cox said. "It is critical that they get paid, that they get paid on time, that they get paid what they're promised to get paid and that they are again treated with dignity and respect."

In 2023, Paco said the Asian Association of Utah offered help to 142 "primary survivors" — 66 labor trafficking victims, 65 sex trafficking victims and 11 more victims of both forms of trafficking — plus their family members. The group, launched in the late 1970s and formed initially to aid Vietnamese refugees through its mission, has since expanded, and also assists refugees and asylum seekers.

Just because the group helps victims of trafficking doesn't mean their cases will necessarily make it into the court system, suggesting actual criminal occurrences may exceed the number of cases in the court system. "We encourage them to report, but it's their decision if they report or not," he said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, however, whose office filed the cases against the seven Rubicon Contractors officials and Roche, has made fighting trafficking a priority. His office didn't respond to a query from KSL.com seeking comment, but he noted his focus on the issue in a press release last November announcing the Rubicon case.

"This is another example of how broadly this type of crime plagues Utah and America and why I have made it a priority to combat human trafficking for the past 10 years. My office and I will continue to prioritize awareness and enforcement of these crimes and human rights abuses," Reyes said at the time.

More recently, Reyes has become mired in controversy over his ties to anti-sex trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad and its founder Tim Ballard, target of a lawsuit filed by several former female associates who charge he had improper sexual contact with them. Reyes has distanced himself from Ballard and Ballard has vehemently denied the charges in the lawsuit.

'Threatened with deportation'

As for labor trafficking, Paco said victims in Utah are typically foreigners working with H-2A or H-2B visas, provided to help fill temporary agricultural job openings and temporary nonagricultural job openings, respectively. Some of the people the Asian Association of Utah helps are undocumented immigrants.

The forms of abuse trafficked workers can face are cramped or substandard living conditions provided by their employers, withholding of pay and more. Sometimes they're not given enough hours of work to support themselves, Paco said. Sometimes employers or the contracting firms responsible for finding workers hold on to their legal documents as a form of coercion and control.

"Sometimes they tell them they're going to report them to (U.S. immigration officials) if they leave the job," Paco said, which can serve to make them put up with poor treatment. Oftentimes, the H-2A and H-2B visa workers, coming from abroad, don't speak English, he said, "so that's a barrier to them asking for help."

The police booking affidavit outlining the charges in the Rubicon cases, filed in 2nd District Court in Farmington, alleges that one worker didn't get the hours of work he had been promised and that he would get regular deductions on his paycheck "for things beyond his control."

The worker "stated that they could not seek out other work to make up for not having enough because Rubicon would threaten to send them back to Mexico," the affidavit reads.

Other workers variously said they were obliged to live in and pay rent for poorly maintained housing provided by Rubicon, that they also didn't get enough hours of work and that they were expected to operate snowplow equipment even if they didn't know how, according to court documents. Some said they were obliged to buy cellphones at Rubicon's behest that could accommodate the Rubicon pay app, with the cost deducted from their paychecks. The documents cite numerous instances of paycheck deductions due to work not completed on time and more.

More generally, the affidavit alleges a work environment characterized by coercion and intimidation. One former worker reported an incident when a top Rubicon official "discussed suing a former employee for speaking with law enforcement," the statement reads. The former worker "stated that she regularly heard H-2B visa (workers) being threatened with deportation."

The Roche Ranch case, filed in 1st District Court, centers on the treatment of one H-2A visa worker from Mexico. Among other things, charging papers said the worker lived in substandard conditions and that ranch operators were dismissive of his complaints after he suffered a fractured orbital socket when a horse bucked him and stepped on him.

In a 2022 report, the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute said change is needed to the H-2B visa program to protect workers from abuses. "Department of Labor data show that nearly $1.8 billion was stolen from workers employed in the main H-2B industries (which includes both U.S. and migrant workers) between 2000 and 2021," it reads.

Back in Utah, Paco said the Rubicon case has prompted more workers from the company to come forward with allegations of mistreatment. The agency is trying to help them get on their feet. "We have received several referrals in just the last few months," Paco said.

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ImmigrationMulticultural UtahBusinessPoliticsUtahDavis CountyPolice & CourtsVoces de UtahNorthern Utah
Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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