When Mary Wilson, owner of the Holiday Inn Express and Sleep Inn in Douglas, Wyo., was approached about hiring Filipino nationals to work at her hotels in late 2008, she had no experience hiring foreign workers. The agency, Giant Labor Solutions, would handle the paperwork.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But she realized something was wrong when the employees, including many with college degrees, told her they were having trouble getting their visas from the agency. She tried contacting the agency but received no response.
When she learned that the company had placed all seven employees—men and women—in the same two-bedroom apartment, she helped them find a new place. She and others in the small community collected food, winter clothes and Christmas gifts for the workers, who often received only $20 out of an $800 check for a two-week period after the staffing agency took its cut for rent and “whatever else they could think of,” Wilson says.
The workers “couldn’t even send money home to their families,” she says. “Some of them had children.”
Then, in the summer of 2009, federal agents came and took the seven workers into protective custody as part of a massive federal investigation.
In May 2011, Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev, an Uzbekistan citizen who led the multinational criminal enterprise that included Giant Labor Solutions, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for trafficking hundreds of foreign nationals in Missouri, Wyoming and 12 other states. It was the first U.S. case where forced labor trafficking was charged as part of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act conspiracy, federal prosecutors said.
Askarkhodjaev pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, fraud in foreign labor contracting, evasion of corporate employment tax and identity theft. In addition to the prison sentence, he was ordered to pay $172,000 in restitution to the victims.
As leader of the trafficking ring, whose members included nationals of Uzbekistan, Moldova and the U.S., Askarkhodjaev arranged for workers to be recruited from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and elsewhere, luring many with false promises concerning the terms, conditions and nature of their employment, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Once in the U.S., the workers were held in overcrowded apartments and compelled into service and hospitality jobs. Members of the trafficking ring withheld much of the victims’ earnings and threatened them with deportation and financial penalties if they refused to comply with the traffickers’ demands.
Askarkhodjaev “directed a criminal organization that, out of pure greed, exploited the hopes and dreams of scores of foreign workers, degrading them through threats and deceit,” Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez said at the time of the sentencing. “The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously prosecute these cases and dismantle criminal networks that prey on vulnerable victims.”
Co-defendants Kristin Dougherty, Ilkham Fazilov, Viorel Simon, Nodirbek Abdollayev, Jakhongir Kakhkarov, Alexandru Frumusache and Abdukakhar Azizkhodjaev were sentenced earlier for their respective roles in the criminal enterprise.
Wilson, the hotel owner, wasn’t charged in the criminal investigation. “There was nothing we did wrong as employers,” she says. While she’s not ruling out the possibility of using a staffing agency again, she’s not currently interested. “I became leery of doing it again just because of what happened,” she explains.
As a first step, employers can check to see if the agency is a member of the American Staffing Association, says Steven Berchem, the association’s chief operating officer.
Association members must agree to a code of ethics, and many association members also earn individual professional certifications, indicating their interest in learning legal and ethical practices, he says. The association also offers corporate certifications.
Wilson advises employers that have hired workers through a staffing agency to keep open communications with the workers, even when they’re not direct employees. “Listen to the employees and what’s happening to them,” she says.
The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.
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