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Friday, May 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Gross Abuses Alleged at Christmas Tree Farm

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Five "victims of human trafficking" were put to forced labor under threat of death at an abusive Christmas tree farm, where they had to drink river water, were stiffed for overtime, suffered chemical burns and essentially held hostage, the men say in a RICO complaint.

The Mexican citizens filed as John Does I-V, saying they fear "retaliation due to threats of bodily injury or death." They sued Pure Forest LLC, its CEO Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth, in Federal Court.

Pure Forest, which grows and sells Christmas trees, had its Mexican recruiter offer work to Mexican nationals, including the John Does. The men were told they would be doing deforestation work for 40 hours a week at $16.47 an hour for nine months, according to the complaint.

Pure Forest promised to pay for the men's visa and travel expenses, to provide all meals, and to provide trailers for lodging, the complaint states.

After bringing the men into the United States under H-2B visas, Pure Forest supervisors took them to a remote work location in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The workers were given a tent to sleep in - some workers had to share tents - and were forced to buy sleeping bags from Pure Forest for $35, the lawsuit states.

After arriving in the mountains, the men were put to work without training, planting trees and spraying chemicals. They say they were not given proper attire or equipment for working with these chemicals.

The men "were forced to carry chemical containers on their backs. The containers often leaked, resulting in chemical burns on plaintiffs' backs and hands. Plaintiffs' eyes are red and irritated from the constant exposure to the chemicals," the complaint states.

One worker got sick from the exposure, causing him to wake up nauseous and dizzy. He cut his hand during work, but was never provided any first aid, the complaint states.

"Pure Forest supervisors were always armed; they carried weapons and had weapons in their vehicles. 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. For instance, John Doe I witnessed one Pure Forest supervisor tell another worker that he would put a bullet in his head. John Doe I was paralyzed with fear. The Pure Forest supervisors also used abusive and crude language to berate plaintiffs and other workers, eroding their confidence," the lawsuit states.

Supervisors shot their guns off in the middle of the night, leaving the workers fearing for their lives. This "psychological and verbal abuse" was used to make the workers believe that they would be seriously harmed if they did not work quickly or tried to leave, the complaint states.

The men worked more than the promised 40 hours, putting in 12 to 13 hours per day, six days a week, rain or shine. They received one short break for a meal and water, and the food was often rotten, the men say.

"They were forced to drink unpurified water directly from the river. Plaintiffs' only source of water for showering was also the river," the complaint states.

On Sunday, their one day off, the workers had to prepare for the next week by sharpening tools, mixing chemicals and washing their clothes, the complaint states.

The men say were taken into town to wash their clothes, during which time Pure Forest's drivers would watch them closely to ensure they did not speak to anyone.

The laundromat owners eventually told the workers they could not use the washing machines because of the chemicals on their clothing, so the men were forced to use what little money they had saved to buy a used washing machine from a Pure Forest supervisor, the lawsuit states.

The men "continued to work only because they had no other option. They were disoriented, confused, stuck in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, miles from the nearest town, and they were in a foreign country where they did not speak the language. Plaintiffs felt trapped; they believed they had no choice other than to do as they were told. They feared that they would not ever be permitted to leave. Plaintiffs were terrified that they would face serious harm if they did not continue to work," the complaint states.

The men say they were also worried for the safety of their families in Mexico, as Jeff and Owen Wadsworth had threatened to harm them.

To top it all off, although the workers' paystubs showed payments for 40 hours of work at $16.50 an hour, they did not show the deductions that Pure Forest took out, including for travel expenses and visas. The men had to pay for their own food and give the cook $60, according to the complaint.

"After the deductions, plaintiffs were left with essentially no money," the complaint states.

When there was no more work left for the men, they were taken to a bus stop, where their supervisors threatened to harm their families and other workers' families if they told anyone what had happened, the complaint states.

The men seek their unpaid wages, overtime wages, and compensatory and treble damages for labor violations, fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, breach of contract, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, and RICO charges.

They are represented by Sean P. Gates with Morrison & Foerster, of Los Angeles.

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