OAKLEY, Idaho -- An Idaho forestry company is being investigated by federal agencies for claims of human trafficking for labor. Pure Forest, LLC operates out of Oakley, Idaho, and its owners are now being sued in federal court by former workers.
Allegations include threatening migrant workers at gunpoint, giving them rotten food and underpaying them. One of the Pure Forest foremen, Pedro Carbajal, has been arrested for illegally possessing a weapon, accused of using the shotgun to threaten workers.
Workers: Supervisors threatened to shoot and leave them for dead
Pure Forest owners Jeff and Owen Wadsworth are accused in a civil suit of trafficking workers from Mexico and taking them to the forests of California, where at least five workers said they've endured horrific conditions.
According to court documents, the workers say they were threatened while they worked and told they would be shot and left for dead if they didn't work more and work faster.
"Pure Forest supervisors, under the supervision of Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth, constantly threatened Plaintiffs and the other workers, telling them repeatedly that they would shoot them and leave them for dead if they did not continue to work," the lawsuit claims.
Pure Forest former employees say they were misled
The workers had temporary worker visas, and thought they'd signed up for some seasonal work. They say they understood they would get 40 hours of tree pruning work a week and paid around $16.50 an hour. They thought their housing, travel and some other expenses would be included.
Once they arrived in the U.S., the lawsuit claims the workers stayed in shared tents, ate spoiled food and drank dirty water. Instead of pruning work, they said they had to use dangerous chemicals without proper protective equipment. They say they worked around 70 hours a week, sometimes earning less than $50 a week. They say they were constantly intimidated and stayed because they had nowhere to go and foremen threatened workers and their families in Mexico.
"Pure Forest supervisors often would shoot their guns off in the middle of the night to scare the workers," the lawsuit claims.
Specific allegations listed in the lawsuit include: Fraudulent misrepresentation, negligence, breach of contract, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, forced labor and human trafficking, and participating in a criminal worker exploitation scheme to fraudulently obtain government approval for temporary workers.
Pure Forest attorneys say allegations are from disgruntled former employees
The Wadsworths' attorneys sent the following statement about the accusations:
Pure Forest LLC is a family run company that provides reforestation and other related services to several clients on the West Coast. Recently, Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth, the managers and operators of the company, were served with a law suit filed by a few disgruntled former employees. The civil suit alleges several acts of mistreatment and abuse. As a result of these allegations, a federal investigation was initiated.
The allegations came after the disgruntled employees' failed attempt at obtaining money from the company by filing frivolous injury and unemployment benefit claims. Interviews of company employees and client foresters, who supervised the foresting operation during the time of the alleged abuse, reveal that none of the allegations are true.
Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth pride themselves on the well-treatment of all their employees and are surprised and saddened that a group of former employees have chosen to bring such allegations. While we do not know whether the claims were brought in order to extort money or to obtain victim immigration benefits, we are confident that the truth will prevail.
We have been fully cooperative with the federal investigation and are confident that Jeff Wadsworth, Owen Wadsworth and Pure Forest LLC will soon be cleared of any and all wrongdoing.
Pure Forest foreman charged with illegally possessing shotgun
Prosecutors say, so far, only one man, Pedro Carbajal, has been charged in connection to the Pure Forest investigation.
"(Carbajal) was a foreman, sort of a work site labor chief, the overseer of a group of workers for Pure Forest," Benjamin Wagner, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said.
According to court documents, after agents found a 12-gauge shotgun in his home, they charged Carbajal with possession of a firearm and ammunition by an illegal alien.
Court documents say he and other foremen carried guns and "threatened to shoot workers in the head and leave them in the woods if they did not work harder." Carbajal's wife told agents the Wadsworths gave him the gun.
Carbajal says he never took gun to work
In jail, Carbajal told KTVB's sister station KXTV, in Sacramento, Calif., that he took the gun and had it in the house, but didn't take it to work or threaten workers.
"I never forced anybody to work. When we worked together, we worked freely. Everyone worked at their own pace," Carbajal said, in Spanish. "If I would have known that the weapon would have caused me this much trouble, I would have discarded it a long time ago."
U.S. Attorney: Human trafficking for labor is tough to track
While this case is being resolved, prosecutors and legal advocacy organizations say these allegations can serve as examples of a big problem in the U.S.: Foreign temporary visa workers ending up in forced labor.
"On the labor side, it’s hard to say how widespread trafficking is because it’s not a crime that has really bright lines around it, that's easy to find, easy to see. But anecdotally the evidence suggests that it is pretty widespread. The problem from the enforcement perspective is unlike sex trafficking, it is often very difficult to find," Wagner said.
The attorney says often labor trafficking is hidden behind closed doors of restaurants, or private homes, or in remote fields and forests.
"It’s in remote work sites, it’s indoors, it’s in people’s homes or restaurants or what have you, not easily visible to the public," Wagner said. "Often it is hard for law enforcement just on the surface of it to readily distinguish between just a kind of socio-economically disadvantaged laborer in a common situation and someone who is being exploited because the outward signs of it are not readily discernable."
Wagner says his office takes labor violations and human trafficking cases seriously because all workers, including those in the country on a temporary visa are entitled to federal minimum wage, safe working and living conditions, and humane treatment.
Legal assistance organization says it gets similar complaints daily
"I would say it would be a rare day that someone didn’t walk in as an agricultural worker with at least one overtime violation, failure to provide a meal or rest period, minimum wage violation or something like that," Cynthia Rice, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said.
Rice says common complaints are similar to what the temporary visa workers are claiming in the Pure Forest lawsuit: Being assigned different work than promised, inadequate conditions, and underpayment.
"We've interviewed several workers who said they would never use the program again…that they really did feel that it was as close to slavery as you could get in a modern country," Rice said.
Resources for reporting human trafficking for sex or labor
There are resources for reporting human trafficking for sexual exploitation, or like is alleged in this case, for forced labor.
The Polaris Project is a non-law enforcement organization that helps investigate cases. You can text "HELP" to "BEFREE" (233-733). You can also call 1-888-373-7888.
The FBI hotline for reports of abuse is 916-481-9110.