Ontario Provincial Police say they have freed 43 modern-day slaves brought to Canada from Mexico by alleged human traffickers and forced to work as cleaners at hotels.
The 43, mostly men aged 20 to 46, were coached on what to say when they entered Canada, lived in "squalid" conditions in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, and were transported to hotel and vacation properties in Central and Eastern Ontario to work, police said on Monday.
All were freed last Tuesday following a joint investigation that involved the OPP, Barrie Police Service and Canada Border Services Agency.
"Human trafficking is modern-day slavery," OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum told reporters in Barrie. "Exploitation is the key element of this offence."
Police said the traffickers allegedly controlled the pay made by the workers. The victims had paid the traffickers large amounts of money to leave Mexico and were charged fees for transportation and lodgings.
The Mexicans worked at locations in Collingwood, Innisfil, Oro-Medonte and Cornwall, Ont., police said.
In some cases, police said the Mexicans, after paying various fees, were left with less than $50 a month.
'This morning, I woke up a free man'
One victim reportedly told investigators: "Last night, I went to bed a slave. This morning, I woke up a free man."
The alleged traffickers have not been arrested or charged.
A number of sources told police last year that a Barrie-based cleaning company, run by two people, was trafficking and defrauding the Mexican-born workers.
The Mexicans had been brought to Canada "under the pretense" of being here for educational purposes or the promise of work visas and eventually permanent residency status.
Barnum added the workers are now here legally. Since they were rescued, they have been offered legal work and accommodations at a Barrie-area resort, Barrie police said.
Twelve search warrants were executed last Tuesday in Barrie and Wasaga Beach, six involving residences and six involving vehicles, police say. About 250 police officers were involved. Investigators are digging into the background of the "two people" who ran the cleaning company but they have not been charged.
Labour human trafficking 'very disturbing,' police say
Barrie Police Chief Kimberley Greenwood said the joint investigation involved what she called a "labour human trafficking" situation. She called it "very disturbing."
She said labour human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation and harbouring of people for the purposes of exploitation for forced labour. It is not confined to large urban centres, she added.
Victims are often members of vulnerable populations, including migrant workers and new immigrants. Victims rarely go to the authorities.
"It is inconceivable that this was taking place in our community," she said.
Greenwood said the 43 were in brought "under misleading circumstances," promised safer lives and more opportunities. "These individuals are now free from the control of the people who wished to exploit them for personal gain," she said.
After the victims were rescued, Greenwood said they went to a Barrie and Area Victim Services centre, where they were offered hot showers, food and clothing, and given medical assessments. Interpreters were made available, she said.
"I am pleased to announce that all of the victims have been offered employment and accommodations at a local resort," she said.
"Whether it involves forced labour or the sex trade, the trafficking of humans is unacceptable. It has no place in our communities and will not be tolerated."
The OPP declined to name the hotels and vacation properties where the men worked and the cleaning company in Barrie.
Criminal charges may be announced at a later date and police said they are looking for other suspects.