For eight months, Julio worked as a landscaper in Western Massachusetts, hauling rocks, digging ditches and pulling weeds about 70 hours a week, earning less than two dollars an hour.

At night, tired and hungry, the Guatemalan immigrant would be driven back to his employer’s suburban home, where he would head down to the basement to sleep on a leaking, plastic blow-up mattress that would deflate in the middle of the night.

Julio — who GBH News agreed to identify with a pseudonym to protect him from retribution — says he was promised $14 an hour when he was first hired, but was paid less than $100 each week despite working long hours with no days off. Yet he felt he couldn’t walk away because his employer also provided something he couldn’t afford on his own: a roof over his head.

"I had no money and I had nowhere to go,’’ said Julio, who spoke to GBH News in Spanish with the help of an interpreter.

Julio’s story is not unique. The GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has found similar tales often repeated by migrant workers in Massachusetts: the use of housing to trap them in jobs where they receive little or no pay. Alleged victims include workers forced to toil long hours in restaurants and cleaning buildings, sometimes held hostage by their own family members, court records and interviews show.

Federal law defines labor trafficking as someone being compelled to work through “force, fraud or coercion.” Diego Low, director of the MetroWest Worker Center in Framingham, says he has represented dozens of mainly undocumented immigrants who were provided housing by employers and a pittance of what they should have been paid for their labor.

In addition to Julio, Low cited two other cases that he said met the legal criteria of labor trafficking: "a nanny and a housekeeper whose passports were taken away," and lived under the roofs of their employers. He said both cases were successfully adjudicated and recognized as trafficking, but there were no consequences for the employer. "One of them left the country so as not to not to have to answer for their behavior," Low said.

A man with glasses and a white beard rests his hands in his front pants pockets as he looks straight ahead. Next to him are two posters, reading "Thou shalt not steal. Stop wage theft now" and "We are human. Immigration reform now!"
Diego Low, director of The MetroWest Worker Center in Framingham, says "to challenge the employer means not knowing where you're going to sleep that night.”
Phillip Martin GBH News

“One of the situations that easily becomes coercive are situations where someone is housed by the employer,” said Low, who also represented Julio. “Because to challenge the employer means not knowing where you're going to sleep that night.”

Sixty-four percent of survivors of labor and sex trafficking say they were recruited when they were experiencing homelessness or unstable housing, according to a recent national survey conducted by Polaris, a nonprofit anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, D.C. Labor trafficking victims include seasonal workers coming to the U.S. to work, homeless youth forced to sell drugs and others pressured to work to stay in transitional or group homes, the report showed.

Amy Farrell, director of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, says the fear of homelessness is a huge pressure for those stuck in exploitative jobs, especially in Massachusetts, which has the seventh highest rent in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report. And in the Greater Boston area, rents are now the second highest in the country, based on an analysis by Zumper.

“In a place like Massachusetts, where housing is incredibly expensive … if you leave the job, you're homeless — you lose your housing, you have nowhere to stay,’’ she said. “So this [labor trafficking prompted by lack of housing] is very, very common. Housing is actually one of the best ways to keep a person in a situation of servitude.”

"Housing is actually one of the best ways to keep a person in a situation of servitude."
Amy Farrell, professor and director of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Farrell urges people to keep an eye out when they see workers come to their house — and report concerns. “All of us have had this experience where you may have had somebody come to do landscaping or come to do construction in your house and you had a bad feeling about it, but they were only there for a day,’’ she said. “Maybe you lived with that bad feeling and didn't report it to anyone.”

Indicators of labor trafficking include individuals working in hazardous conditions without proper safety gear, training, or other protections or who are “living in dangerous, overcrowded, inhumane conditions provided by an employer,” according to Polaris.

By one estimate, there are about 210,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. Because of the very nature of their unlawful status, there is no data showing how many among them are victims of labor trafficking and other forms of exploitation, but Farrell, an expert on human trafficking, said the issue is pervasive.

She said a conversation with a worker who appears to be in distress might prove helpful. She suggests reporting credible indicators of labor trafficking to the state Attorney General's Office and the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

A sign posted to a wall says "Stop exploitation. Stop human trafficking"
Placards making the public aware of the National Human Trafficking Hotline are being placed in hotel rooms across the country, including this one in a hotel room in New York City.
Phillip Martin GBH News

One alleged victim in Massachusetts is an undocumented immigrant in her 60s from Portugal, who testified in state court in 2020 that she was paid almost nothing for cleaning offices at night after being provided housing by her alleged trafficker.

The woman, identified as A.C., is one of two alleged victims of a janitor named Fernando Roland, currently being charged with labor trafficking by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in Bristol County Superior Court.

A.C. testified in court that she had been recently widowed and was on the brink of being kicked out of her house when she reached out to Roland for help.

“He said he would find me a room and give me a job,” she said.

Prosecutors allege that Roland put A.C. to work in a cleaning company where he was employed, but punched her time card in and out under his name and pocketed her wages. Roland has pleaded not guilty and the case is pending. But A.C. testified in open court that the man she thought was her friend took total control over her after promising to help her find a job and a decent place to live.

Instead, she said, he confined her to a tiny space in a boarding house, drove her back and forth to work, confiscated her passport, and provided her almost no money to survive. Almost every cent went to pay for the room she lived in.

“He didn’t give me food or water. I would go hungry,’’ she testified. “He controlled my life.”

An attorney for Roland declined to discuss his client’s case with GBH News.

The outside of a Woburn restaurant called The Dog House Bar and Grill with an American Flag hanging to left of it.
Owners of the Dog House Bar and Grill and Taste of Brazil located on Main Street in Woburn were charged with human smuggling in October.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

The use of housing as a trap for exploited workers also was cited as a factor in the recent federal raid of two Brazilian restaurants in Woburn.

Last year, Woburn restaurateurs Jesse and Hugo Moraes were charged in federal court with human smuggling for bringing immigrants into the country, housing them and then paying them meager or no wages for their work. One of the alleged victims told law enforcement that they worked 14 hours a day with no days off for a month, earning about $3 an hour. When they complained about working conditions and wanted to stop, they were told they would have to leave the house.

GBH News spoke with Boston attorney Paul Kelly, who represents Hugo Moraes. He said evidence will prove that his client is not guilty. At a detention hearing in October, Alyssa Thrasher Hackett, a public defender and lawyer for Jesse Moraes, told a federal judge that her client “has given everything to his children … he has lived his life for other people,” and denied that he was a danger to anyone.

The fear of homelessness is often used by traffickers to coerce victims to stay under their control. Sex and labor trafficking can operate out of public housing units, apartments, vacation rentals, and in shelters and residential facilities like nursing homes.

Lidia Ferreira, a worker's rights organizer for the Brazilian Women’s Group in Brighton, says she often hears of people brought to the United States by family members and then exploited for free labor. She said these are some of the hardest cases to prove in court because of the family connections.

“We have a lot of different cases of workers who lived with the employer who is a relative and was also the landlord,’’ she said. “They come from Brazil and the person says ‘I have a place. You can come and rent a room in my apartment, and then you can work for me the next day.’”

Among those, Ferreira described the case of Danny Sousa, who was charged in Bristol County Superior Court in 2014 for allegedly trafficking two relatives he’d invited to the country and put up in his home.

Prosecutors say that the minute they arrived, the couple were put to work — 15 hours a day, seven days a week — and paid only a fraction of what they had been promised. When they asked for their unpaid wages, prosecutors say, Sousa took out a gun and said, “I don’t owe anyone any money in this house.”

But in 2017, a Bristol County Superior Court judge, while concluding that a gun was present, ruled in favor of Sousa, concluding that the evidence of human trafficking presented to a grand jury “failed to show the couple was subjected to forced service.” In a footnote, the court noted that the couple’s “travel expenses, room, and board were paid for by the defendant and his wife.”

For anti-trafficking advocates, the case was a defeat — but some say the big surprise was that the case was heard at all.

An ongoing investigation by GBH News called Trafficking Inc. has shown that labor trafficking cases are rarely filed in Massachusetts courts. The vast majority of examples of forced labor never reach a court of law, advocates say, largely because victims are afraid to speak out and law enforcement often mistake labor crimes for wage disputes.

Julio’s eight months in a basement is one such example.

The basement

On most weekdays in front of Padaria Brasil bakery on Concord Street in Framingham, immigrant men congregate — even on some of the coldest days — hoping to pick up day labor from one of the many small contractors who trawl the area looking for help on the cheap. It used to be mainly Brazilians who waited there hoping to grab a few hours of work. These days, it's largely Indigenous men from Central and South America who stand near the bakery with that goal in mind.

This is where Julio heard about a landscaping contractor who was looking for a full-time worker and promising to pay $14 an hour. The contractor was hired by a national retailer to do landscaping, among other contracts. The job offer came with a guarantee of housing, which Julio desperately needed. After what he described as a grueling journey to reach the United States from Guatemala, he said he was shocked at the cost of renting — not just an apartment, but even a single room in Massachusetts.

So it seemed like the fulfillment of an American dream to have a free place to live as long as he remained in the employ of the contractor, and a job that would allow him to send money back to his family.

“I had been without work for 42 days and was beating the bushes with friends trying to find work,” Julio said. “And someone said to me, ‘We know of this guy. We don't know him well, but he has a company and maybe you could find work with him.’”

Julio says the contractor picked him up, brought him to his house on a dead-end street, and gave him a place to sleep. But Julio was forced to work from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. with little sustenance. He lost 20 pounds. “I was given a cup of coffee in the morning, not even bread,” he said.

GBH News is not disclosing the name of the contractor because Julio is afraid of retaliation. But reporters were able to corroborate some of Julio’s story from documents in the possession of the MetroWest Worker Center-Casa Del Trabalhar in Framingham, which is helping with his legal fight.

"I was given a cup of coffee in the morning, not even bread."
Julio, Guatemalan migrant worker

Weekdays were terrible, he said. But weekends were no better. His employer would put food outside the basement door so he wouldn’t enter the house when guests were coming over. Sometimes, he says, he would ask for more money to buy food and get nothing, his employer asking him where his earnings had gone. “I told him that I had sent money back to my family. And he said, 'Remember, you know, your focus has to be on your reality here. The situation back there, you just have to forget that.’”

After eight months, Julio gave notice to his employer.

“I told him that I needed to move on and to drop me off at such and such an address. And he said, 'OK,'” said Julio. He says the man took a long route to make sure he didn’t know where he had been living. “Even though it was relatively nearby, minutes away, he took this long, circuitous route of about an hour to get me there,” he said.

Several posters overlap on the top of a table. They all show illustrations of people, and the words of the frontmost poster read "Wage theft hurts all of us."
Posters sit on a table at the MetroWest Worker Center in Framingham.
Phillip Martin GBH News

Once in downtown Framingham, Julio walked to a building just yards from the Brazilian bakery on Concord Street and climbed the old wooden steps to the second floor to meet Diego Low. Low said he and his staff put together a plan to address what he believed was a clear-cut case of labor trafficking that included, in this instance, a critical defining element: coercion, in the form of the housing provided to his client as a condition for staying on the job.

“We tried to put pressure on the national retailer for whom they were doing the landscaping to get these folks paid, because it wasn't just Julio,” Low said. “Julio was the one who lived on the property. But there were four workers that we were trying to assist in recovering their wages. Most of the rest of them went back to their country, moved on in life and didn't recover.”

The national retailer refused to accept any responsibility for Julio’s and other workers’ exploitation, said Low. He pursued fair labor charges against the subcontractor and filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General. A lawyer representing Julio sued the landscaping subcontractor and succeeded in getting back wages amounting to $11,000. But no criminal charges for human trafficking were filed.

Many migrant workers have learned to take care of themselves — and each other. Julio says the Guatemalan, Ecuadorian and Indigenous workers who assemble in front of the bakery have developed their own warning system.

Two men in jackets stand outside the doors of a building as vehicles pass by in the street in front of them.
Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, and indigenous day-laborers who assemble near a popular bakery in Framingham have developed their own warning system about unscrupulous contractors based on the logo and truck of the driver and "often can determine if they’re a known actor."
Phillip Martin GBH News

“You talk to folks who are owed unpaid wages and they often won't know the details of their employer’s identity,’’ he said. “But if you ask about their truck and their logo and whatever, you often can determine if they’re a known actor.”

Julio was eventually able to find a stable job and home and has moved his wife and children to the United States.

He’s disappointed the landscaping subcontractor was not held accountable — and worries there may be a newly trafficked worker living today in his former employer’s cold, dusty basement. “I have no way of knowing for certain,’’ he said. “But if he did it once, what's to keep him from doing it again?”

The ongoing series Trafficking Inc. is part of a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners.