A New Bedford man was sentenced Thursday to five years in state prison after being convicted of labor trafficking earlier this month — the first known conviction under the state’s 2012 human trafficking law.

Fernando Roland, age 66, was sentenced in Bristol County Superior Court in Fall River for trafficking two immigrant women while working for a Rhode Island–based cleaning company, Martins Maintenance Inc.

A jury on Dec. 11 found Roland guilty of 11 counts of human trafficking after a five-day trial proved that Roland had forced the two women to work as cleaners for little or no pay, took possession of their passports and threatened them to keep them in his service.

The case marks the first time the state Office of the Attorney General has won a conviction in a forced labor case and likely the first time in the state as a whole. A GBH News investigative series last year found state prosecutors filed about a dozen forced labor cases and not yet won a conviction.

“With today’s sentence, we are making it clear that we will prioritize labor trafficking cases and hold accountable those who force someone to work,” Attorney General Andrea Campbell said in a written statement. “I, along with the team, are grateful to the victims who took considerable risk in coming forward and sharing their stories without which my incredible team who worked on this case would not have been successful.”

Anti-trafficking advocates say the lack of convictions is out of step with the reality that victims of forced labor are hidden in plain sight: in restaurants, construction sites and offices like Martins Maintenance.

Julie Dahlstrom, a professor and director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law, said she was heartened to hear that a trafficker was held accountable. At the same time, she says the news prompts more questions about the lack of prosecutions.

“It signals, one, that we still have much work to do, but also that courts and prosecutors and others are starting to recognize that trafficking and labor trafficking specifically is happening in Massachusetts,” she said. “Labor trafficking is often an unseen crime with survivors afraid to step forward—due to fear of deportation, arrest, or reprisals.”

In a sentencing memo made public Thursday, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Roland to 10 years in prison for 11 counts of trafficking and two-and-a-half years in a county jail for a separate count of assault and battery against one of the women.

“I suffered a lot with him. He did not give me any money. ... I never feel safe.”
Victim of convicted labor trafficker Fernando Roland

They say Roland forced the two women, one from Senegal and one from Portugal, to clean often for no wages, driving them to work sites, threatening them with violence and withholding their passports during periods between 2016 and 2018. One woman escaped in 2017; another woman worked for almost nothing but was afraid of speaking out, the memo maintains.

Roland stood, largely emotionless, at the sentencing when Judge Daniel O' Shea told him he would several several sentences concurrently — adding up to a five-year mandatory sentence for labor trafficking. The judge made the decision after one of the prosecutors read a note from one of the victims, who can't read or write.

“I suffered a lot with him. He did not give me any money,” the woman had said, according to Nicole Poirier, deputy chief of the Human Trafficking Division in the Attorney's General Office. “I did not have water at times. He would leave me places and make fun of me. ... I never feel safe.”

Roland’s attorney, Robert Spavento, declined to comment on Thursday. He said his client plans to appeal.

A second trial against Martins Maintenance is expected to begin next year, focusing on allegations that the family-owned company profited from the exploitation of the two women working in offices across Massachusetts.

Martins Maintenance had moved to dismiss the case against the company, saying top managers from the family-owned business weren’t responsible for what happened. They described Roland in court documents as a “low-level employee ... relegated to the lower end of the social heap.” They say he was an aging immigrant who found other women to work for him cleaning buildings at night.

But last year, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled there was, “sufficient evidence to establish probable cause that the company was profiting from labor trafficking.”

Dahlstrom said she and other advocates are closely watching the next case. Its outcome, she said, could establish broader accountability for exploitation, placing blame with the companies that are making a profit.

“We are seeing a move nationally to look at institutions and hold institutions accountable for benefitting from labor and sex trafficking,” she said. “If we care about the structural issues that make trafficking possible, than we have to hold institutions accountable.”