GBH, January 2023
Working in Boston-area restaurants over the last 15 years, Billy often felt like a slave. He was caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of labor and exploitation, striving to pay off debts, sick from stress and overwork, terrified about being turned over to immigration officials. The 41-year-old Salvadoran immigrant said he started his first restaurant job in 2008. He worked as a dishwasher 85 hours a week, earning $6 an hour without breaks or overtime. His main goal was to pay off nearly $18,000 in debt he accrued to get to the United States. He lived in a series of rented rooms and worried about being picked up by immigration authorities. Over the years, he said a series of employers profited from this fear, threatening him with deportation. “They multiply the work, they don’t pay you well, they don’t let you eat, they want you always there working, working, working like a slave,” said Billy in an interview in Spanish, requesting to only be identified by his nickname for fear of reprisals. “They have all the power.”
Nationwide, food services top the Department of Labor’s list of “low wage, high violation industries,” based on a high number of minimum wage and overtime violations, among other issues. In Massachusetts, the restaurant industry also tops a federal list of wage-and-hour law violators in the state. This is bad news for workers, of course. But many labor specialists say wage theft and other violations also can be a symptom of a much more troubling crime: forced labor, or labor trafficking.