Construction Industry labor abuse hurts workers & communities.


Labor trafficking can happen anywhere. 

Learn more of the story on how these workers got here and what they are going through.

Watch or read the full interview below.



Interview Transcript:

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals involved.



EC 00:00 – “Okay, how are you sir?”


MV 00:03 – “Good.”


EC 00:04 – “What is your name?”


MV 00:05 – “Miguel Vargas.”


EC 00:06 – “How old are you Miguel?”


MV 00:09 – I’m 19 years old.


EC 00:10 – 19 years old…How long have you been in the US?


MV 00:14 – I’ve been here 6 months, going on 7 months.


EC 00:17 – 7 months?


MV 00:18 – That’s how it is.


EC 00:19 – And where was the first place you landed?


MV 00:21 – Pennsylvania.


EC 00:23 – Pennsylvania? That was the first place you started working?


MV 00:25 – That’s how it is.


EC 00:26 – And where did they bring you from?


MV 00:29 – From Guerrero (city in Mexico).


EC 00:32 – From Guerrero? Okay you’re from Guerrero.


MV 00:35 – That’s how it is.


EC 00:36 – How did you get to the US? Explain the experience you’ve had getting here.


MV 00:42 – Illegally.  First… from Cuernavaca Morelos we took a bus to Mexico {City}. From there we took an airplane to Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. It was me and 3 of my cousins.

EC 01:09 – How much did you have to pay to get from Guerrero to Juarez?


MV 01:13 – To get to that point I paid $5,000 pesos to get to Juarez. From there, we were together, you could say.  I was in charge because I have more experience being out on the street. So, we left and had a problem when getting off the plane.  There were police at the exit, and they stopped us.

They stopped us and asked what we were doing with the phones. Who were we calling. We were all trying to locate the Coyote, he was supposed to pick us up. But he wouldn’t answer us. So, we called our family/relatives here to find out who the Coyote was, or where we could find him, or where to meet.  The police observed us, and while we were eating they stopped us. They had told us the hotel to go to but the police stopped us.


EC 02:15 – Were you arrested?


MV 02:17 – They stopped us. And took us to talk with them in a “private” office.  There were no cameras or anything. We got there and were put in and told we were going to be detained/arrested. And because I was the oldest, 3 of us were “adults”, 1 of my cousins is a minor, we were told he was going to follow the DIF (SN-DIF) Mexico’s Department of Children Services until his parents came to get him. We were going to be sent to Mexico City, returned to that city, no options because they found message in our phones about the Coyote and the Coyote’s number. They checked our phones, they took them.  We were all nervous, I tried talking to them, tried to fix things, offered money.  I didn’t have a lot of money, I offered what I had, $500 pesos in my pocket. I offered that.  We offered $500 pesos each that was there, they wanted $10,000 pesos not $2,000 pesos that we put together from the 4 of us.  We couldn’t get more together, we didn’t have it.  They asked us for $10,000 pesos and they would let us go, the police corrupt by the way.


EC 03:35 – And what happened from all that?


MV 03:37 – Well we didn’t know what to do.  They told us to call all the people we know (to get money) if we wanted to leave.  They said they would call the Coyote and detain/arrest him, that we would have serious problems with him for that. So, I started talking to the police, I started explaining the situation – ‘I need to pass over there’. Police, ‘why?’ ‘because of necessity, because I have to help my parents. I need to get ahead and here in Mexico I can’t. I have tried various of ways to fight for a way of life, and it is not possible here with this…’ You know what the police told me? ‘If you were in my place, what would you do?’ I told him, ‘If I was you I wouldn’t be going to the US because I have a fixed salary.’


EC 04:26 – Yes, a good job.


MV 04:27 – Yes, ‘I would be living a content life.’ And then I asked him to put himself in my shoes. ‘If you were me, what would you do?’ What would you do with no opportunities for work to get ahead? He stood there thinking, 2 others came and they talked about what to do. They opened the door and told us ‘Go ahead. Go.’


EC 04:50 – They let you go?


MV -4:52 – They let us go. Everyone was scared.


EC 04:55 – Your heart going like this (mimics heart beating out of chest).


MV 04:57 – Everyone thinking…Everyone nervous that we were going to be taken in. One of my cousins was almost crying because he was in charge of the minor. The parents had signed a document for him to take my minor cousin. They had asked us for it to get on the plane. He was worried about what he would have to do to tell the minor cousins’ parents if Mexican Children Services took him (SN-DIF). So, we got out of that, we arrived {in Juarez}, spent a week in a hotel, paying for food, everything.


EC 05:33 – Still in Juarez?


MV 05:34 – Yes, Juarez. So, after a week the Coyote called and said he was home, we could meet. He picked us up at the place and we all loaded into a van. Thank God everything worked out.  They were good people, they treated us good, the person we were with treated us well.

EC 06:03 – When you got to this side (the U.S.)?


MV 06:05 – While we were ever there (Juarez, Mexico).


EC 06:06 – Still in Mexico?


MV 06:07 – Yes. The Coyote, because we were paying, they treated us well. He didn’t hurt us or anything. I don’t have anything to say about that. But it was hard because for 2 or 3 nights…maybe 6 nights we barely slept waiting for the time to cross. {They} kept telling us to be ready, in a little, in a little while.  ‘Don’t sleep, be ready.’


EC 06:32 – To cross the bor-


MV 06:33 – Yes, to cross the border. Then the one night they told us, ‘Get ready, time to go.’ There were 2 older guys with us, heavy guys. 4 of us and these 2, 6 in total for our group. We had to help them cross, because if they didn’t make it, or if only we crossed without them, the Coyote wouldn’t let us in the can until everyone was loaded.


EC 07:13 – Why? Because he needed all the people?


MV 07:15 – That’s how it is, he needed everyone. He needed everyone over here. We helped them. I was the first that… I was the last of us 4 cousins, I lifted them first in a {harness}, crosses a river that was up to our waists.


MV 07:33-08:59 – Miguel talks about climbing the fence helping his cousins and some others to make the climb up and down the other side. Helping a woman get in a van that was leaving, helping an elder guy get down, older guy hurt his arm/elbow. And having to run to get in his van.


MV 09:00 – So that’s how we got across.  Then we traveled about 3 days I think, 3 days. It was 2 days and 1 night until we got to Colorado. We had to find the people we were going with to get to a place where they watched the police so we could pass. Thank God we made it to Colorado.

EC 09:32 – So how much- who paid the Coyote for you to cross the border and get to Colorado?


MV 09:39 – The boss that I came to work for.


EC 09:40 – He (the boss) paid the Coyote to take you to Colorado.


MV 09:44 – That’s how it is.


EC 09:45 – How much did he pay for you?


MV 09:48 – He paid $6,000 dollars.


EC 09:50 – $6,000 dollars and then the boss charged you to take you from Colorado to Pittsburg, PA?


MV 09:55 – (Agreeing) Pittsburg. That’s how it is.


EC 09:56 – And how much did he charge you for that?


MV 09:58 – I think it was like $600, $500, $530 around there.


EC 10:05 – To go from Colorado to Pittsburg, PA?


MV 10:07 – That’s how it is, for each person that came (there were 4 of us) but only 3 of us went to Pennsylvania.  But all of us are working for the same boss.


EC 10:17 – So, in total it’s about $6,500 dollars he paid or you have/had to pay back?


MV 10:23 – That’s how it is.


EC 10:24 – That you had to pay because he paid for you. He paid the Coyote and then charged you to take you from Colorado to Pittsburg.


MV 10:29 – That’s how it is.


EC 10:31 – But how much was the total to get from Guerrero to Pittsburgh?


MV 10:36 – We spent, well I spent for myself $8,500 dollars to get here.


EC 10:43 – $8,500 total?


MV 10:45 – $8,500 for everything.


EC 10:46 – To get here.


MV 10:47 – In Mexico I had some money, that’s what I used to get here. I got/borrowed some, and that’s how we got here.


EC 10:59 – So the “Boss” paid the Coyote part of the money to get you here?


MV 11:05 – That’s how it is.


EC 11:06 – That brings up this question. What happens if someone leaves the “boss” without paying back the debt?


MV 11:14 – He would be upset, he’d say I’m ungrateful because he brought me here, he supported me, that I shouldn’t leave. That’s what some of our companies said, that-


EC 11:26 – Before paying their debt?


MV 11:29 – Yes that’s why.


EC 11:31 – He doesn’t get mad, or violent or anything like that?


MV 11:35 – Well…up until now everyone has paid.  We have all paid, no one has left. No one has left like that.


EC 11:41 – What does he say to people that want to leave without paying their debt? Does he say that he’ll call back to Mexico to “f***” with their families, or not?


MV 11:52 – I believe he would because if someone owed….


EC 11:56 – He knows where all the people (family) are right?


MV 11:58 – Yes, he knows them all.


EC 12:00 – Because he’s from the same city as {all} you?


MV 12:02 – That’s how it is.


EC 12:04 – That man, the “Boss”, he’s Guatemala?


MV 12:08 – That’s how it is.


EC 12:09 – But the 2nd in charge, he knows everyone because he’s from the same city {in Mexico}.


MV 12:15 – That’s how it is.


EC 12:16 – Okay, that’s what I was asking. How do you control the people if they don’t pay? They’ll just leave?


MV 12:26 – Yes.


EC 12:27 – Rights? Because, that’s the other thing… What were you promised when you got here?


MV 12:31 – Work, lots of work.  All we had to do was work, and a house, pay gas only and make an hourly rate.


EC 12:47 – And how much does he pay you an hour?


MV 12:49 – He was paying me $12 an hour. But I think he’s paying me $13 an hour now.


EC 12:55 – $13 an hour?


MV 12:56 – $13 an hour he’s paying.


EC 12:59 – At $13 an hour, but he pays for housing but you pay for food, clothes and….


MV 13:04 – For food, clothes, I pay…


EC 13:06 – Even tools?


MV 13:07 – Even tools, yes.


EC 13:09 – You had an agreement with him.


MV 13:10 – Yes, we had an agreement with him that he would pay for tools and now it’s changed.


EC 13:14 – And now, now you have to pay for tools?


MV 13:16 – Now I’m buying tools.


EC 13:18 – Everything, now you’re paying for housing and everything else?


MV 13:20 – That’s how it is.


EC 13:22 – And at $13 an hour you have to pay for everything.


MV 13:25 – Yes.


EC 13:26 – But your debt to him, that is paid off already?


MV 13:29 – Yes, I’m done paying my debt to him, thank God. But in reality, it has cost me a lot of work (labor).


EC 13:36 – And that is another thing.  How many hours do you work a day?


MV 13:40 – Well, normally it’s 12 hours. Sometimes more, more than 12.


EC 13:44 – More than 12?


MV 13:45 – 14 hours, 13 hours.


EC 13:47 – And how much time are you given to eat?


MV 13:49 – 1 hour.


EC 13:50 – 1 hour every day?


MV 13:52 – That’s how it is, but it doesn’t count on the check (paid on a reloadable card) You don’t get paid for the lunch hour.


EC 13:57 – Okay. So, if you were 12 hours minus lunch you only get paid for 11 hours?


MV 14:00 – It’s 11 hours of work, yes.


EC 14:03 – Okay. And so, this man, how does he control everything? He controls many things in your life correct? Because you don’t have a car…


MV 14:12 – So yes, he…If I want to go somewhere, like when I got sick, I called you, because I don’t have the confidence/trust to ask him to take me {to the hospital}. Because if I do, I know he’d say, no I’m not taking you. He would feel compromised with me from that point and I would feel compromised with him. He would say, ‘I paid so much {for you}, you owe me’, to keep me working for him. He would say, ‘It’s okay, pay me with work’. That is his way {of keeping people}. He says, ‘I helped you now you have to respond, reciprocate/pay me back.’


EC 14:50 – Okay. So, when you got sick, you weren’t going to ask him to take you to the hospital?


MV 14:59 – I didn’t ask.


EC 15:02 – Because he wasn’t going to take you?


MV 15:04 – I didn’t even ask because I knew if I did ask, he would make another compromise/agreement where I would have to keep working to pay off this favor.  I don’t want to continue working for him. I want to go somewhere better.


EC 15:23 – But when you got sick, you had to go to the hospital.


MV 15:26 – That’s how it was.


EC 15:27 – But he (broker/2nd in charge) wasn’t at the house?


MV 15:29 – No, he wasn’t there.


EC 15:31 – And he/they didn’t leave keys to use the vehicles?


MV 15:35 – No.


EC 15:36 – They don’t ever leave the keys for you guys to use the vehicles for personal use?


MV 15:40 – No. We can only use the vehicles if they tell us to do something for them. Or if they send us to get something or go somewhere for them. That’s it.


EC 15:48 – So unless they tell you to use it, you can’t?


MV 15:54 – Well, sometimes they let me use it, but it’s because they tell me to go do something.


EC 15:57 – Yes, but they only let you use it for their needs. But you can’t use it to go to the hospital?


MV 16:04 – No, I’ve never asked {to use vehicles for personal use} because that is a favor that I would be charged for (to work off the favor).


EC 16:09 – Oh! They charge you for everything?


MV 16:11 – That’s how it is.


EC 16:13 – Wow! Okay, okay.  So, what happened, you got sick? What happened? What was wrong?


MV 16:23 – Appendicitis.


EC 16:24 – Appendicitis, did they have to remove it?


MV 16:26 – They had to remove it immediately because, the way they explained it was, I only had 20 minutes to live after it burst in my stomach.


EC 16:36 – Thank God that didn’t happen, right?


MV 16:30 – Yes, thankfully my friend (speaking of the interviewer) helped me.


EC 16:41 – Yep, that’s right. Um…Okay this also. You crossed and made it to Colorado. How many people were with you to Colorado?


MV 17:00 – We came in 2 vehicles. Full of nothing but illegals.  About 23 people.


EC 17:06 – 23? Everyone went to Colorado with you guys?


MV 17:08– No, we went in different directions. Some went to other states. Only myself and my cousins went to Colorado.


EC 17:19 – And how many of you went to work for the “Boss” (the labor broker).


MV 17:23 – The 4 of us came together, the 4 of us are with him.


EC 17:29 – Okay. So, your cousin and your brother came over with you, or were they already here?


MV 17:36 – One of them, my cousin came with me.  My brother was already here. He came before.


EC 17:42 – Oh he was already here.


MV 17:43 – He came with another person.


EC 17:45 – Okay, he came with someone else…


MV 17:48 – He has a different story.


EC 17:50 – Yes, that’s why I wanted to talk to you.  Even your cousin says his story is different.  So how many people work for this “boss” (labor broker)?


MV 18:07 – In fact, there’s uh-huh, one {family member} in Colorado.


EC 18:10 – There’s one…


MV 18:11 – Of the guys that came here with me, one is in Colorado.  Here (in Ohio), there are 3 of us. Me, and 2 of my cousins.


EC 18:18 – Okay, 4 came with you {across the border} …


MV 18:22 – Of the 4 that came with me, 3 and myself are here…


EC 18:26 – Oh okay, 1 cousin stayed in Colorado working for him. Is he the minor?


MV 18:33 – The minor is the one that just got here, Jon.


EG 18:36 – Jon…, and now you said there’s another minor working for him that is 16.


MV 18:41 – Yes, another guy came that is a minor.


EC 18:45 – Why do such young men come to work?


MV 18:49 – Because there’s no opportunities over there, it’s too difficult.  It is really difficult. It’s not possible {to live} in the cities.  There’s a lot of corruption, it has lots of problems (gangs/cartel).  You’re force into doing things that aren’t…how should I put it…not good.


EC 19:08 – Is there a lot of violence?


MV 19:09 – That’s how it is.


EC 19:10 – You showed me some pictures when you were in the hospital.


MV 19:13 – Yes. I have them on my phone.


EC 19:15 – Would you show the camera?


MV 19:17 – Yes, that’s fine.


EC 19:18 – The photos are from the city you live in {Mexico}?


MV 19:22 – That’s it.  It’s where I used to live.


EC 19:27 – And the rest of your family is there still?


MV 19:30 – Yes, my parents, and my brother.


MV 19:46 – Here are the photos.


EC 20:08 – Are these 3 different people?


MV 20:11 – It’s one person, in different parts.


EC 20:14 – One person in different parts/pieces?


MV 20:15 – That’s how it is.


EC 20:16 – So that’s how life is there? In that city?


MV 20:18 – Yes, that’s Mexico.


EC 20:20 That’s why you came here {to America}?


MV 20:22 – Yes. Because, in fact, I left from that city to work, to look for work.  In that city (Cuernavaca Merelos). I worked selling hamburgers from a cart. From 12-12, 12 hours a day of work to make 200 pesos which here is about $20-$25 dollars. So, in reality…


EC 20:50 – You can’t get ahead.


MV 20:53 – I couldn’t get ahead, pay rent, water, lights.  So, it was only to be able to feed myself.


EC 21:00 – How much family do you have? How many brothers and sisters?


MV 21:04 – My parents and siblings, we are 10.


EC 21:07 – 10?


MV 21:08 – 10 siblings, that’s how it is.


EC 21:10 – Big family…


MV 21:11 – Very big (almost too big).


EC 21:12 – They didn’t have a television…


MV 21:13 – I don’t think so…But we’re going to get ahead.  I’m grateful to my parents.  They’ve taken care of me, and now it’s my turn to reciprocate/respond.  My mother is sick, I’ve been trying to help with what I can.  But since there are not many opportunities there, 2-3 times I’ve gone out to see what “they” (cartels/gangs) have. {I was} looking for a solution to the problem (money). But I couldn’t find a way. But now that I’ve come here, I was sending {money}, bought the medicine they needed.


EC 21:52 – You’ve been helping out your mother and father?


MV 21:54 – That’s how it is.


EC 21:55 – And now that your debt is paid you’re making money correct?


MV 22:00 – Yes, that’s how it is.


EC 22:01 – Because this whole time you’ve been paying off your debt, right?


MV 22:04 – Yes, the past 6 months I’ve been working off debt to him (the boss). 6 months…


EC 22:12 – Working it off for him?


MV 22:13 – That’s how it is.


EC 22:14 – Making minimal money.


MV 22:15 – I would only have money for food, the rest was going to pay my debt.


EC 22:19 – You only kept money for food for the week.


MV 22:22 – That’s how it is.


EC 22:23 – And everything else was for him.


MV 22:25 – Yes.  I kept $5-$10 for the week, if I wanted a juice or go to the store.


EC 22:32 – That’s difficult.


MV 22:33 – It’s difficult…


EC 22:34 – But now, you’re out of the hospital. Everything is good (health-wise).


MV 22:38 – Yes.


EC 22:39 – May God watch over you. Now you have 3 weeks of recovery, and have to stay here…


MV 22:46 – Rest.


EC 22:47 – But after, are you going to stay with this “boss” (labor broker)?


MV 22:49 – No, I want to find another place.


EC 22:53 – Because he doesn’t treat you right, he doesn’t pay you?


MV 22:56 – I’m not doing well, too many hours working, we’re on top of each other (with regards to living conditions).


EC 23:00 – Another question. If you’re working all those hours, 12 hours minimum 6 days a week, that’s up to 84 hours.  Does he pay the 84 hours or all hours worked?


MV 23:10 – No.


EC 23:11 – No?


MV 23:12 – No, I’ve noticed the check (money on the reloadable card) is usually 2, 3, 4 hours less.


EC 23:18 – Always?


MV 23:20 – That’s how it is.


EC 23:21 – Okay.  What would you like people to know about your experience?


MV 23:29 – That this is very difficult.  It’s not easy as saying ‘I’m going to the USA’. It’s not easy getting here, you have to understand the amount of debt you’ll have is large.


EC 23:40 – That there’s people here exploiting those coming to work.


MV 23:44 – That’s how it is. There’s a lot of people…We need to be wary of who we are coming with/for.  And in reality, why we are coming, because many of us come to help our family back home. But they get rich (labor broker) and we end up staying the same or worse.


EC 24:06 – This is a question I asked your cousin earlier. Do you want to stay in the US or do you want to make money to go back to Mexico?


MV 24:15 – I would like to make money then return to my family.


EC 24:19 – And return?


MV 24:20 – And go back to where I’m from, that’s how it is.


EC 24:23 – What do you hope to obtain? What do you need to go back to Mexico? A house? Land?


MV 24:29 – I’d like my own house. But before that, I want to help my parents. Then after that land and a small house where I can live peacefully. It is very difficult to obtain land/farm, it costs a lot of money.


MV 24:45 – Here {in the US}, if you work hard for 2-3 months at a good paying job, what you make would take 3-4 years over there {in Mexico}.


EC 24:55 – To make the same…


MV 24:56 – That’s how it is.  That’s what I see. A word of advice, if you’re going to come to the US, think about the difficulty getting here, it’s not easy.  It’s not easy working here, 12 hours a day. Working from sun up to sun down. Working for a “boss” (labor broker) who doesn’t care about you.


EC 25:17 – And worrying about people watching you (deportation).


MV 25:21 – Fear like going to the hospital. Fear that they would send me back to Mexico. I didn’t know what was going to happen.  Fear that because I have no money, because in Mexico, if you go to the clinic without money you could die outside and no one would care.


EC 25:39 – You thought that would happen to you here?


MV 25:41 – Yes, I thought that was going to happen here. I figured, I have no money, they’re not going to operate. Or if they operate and I don’t have a way to pay, they’ll never let me leave the hospital.  That’s how it is in Mexico, you can’t leave until.


EC 25:58 – They put you in prison?


MV 25:59 – That’s how it is…So it ended up not being like that.  I thank you for giving me a hand, I truly do.


EC 26:08 (- Caught off guard) We are all human, and as humans we all have rights.


MV 26:14 – Yes, that’s it. But I was still in fear at that time, thank God thought everything turned out okay.  I’m still alive.


EC 26:22 – You’re still here to keep working, to help your family, to build a house.  To have a future.


MV 26:30 – Yes.  To work hard and build a future.  Recently I’ve been worried because I have to be off 3 weeks. Staying at the house, sleeping, resting, like {worried about} the “boss” (labor broker).  He hasn’t said anything yet, but he’s going to end up saying ‘how is this guy staying here, sleeping here and he’s not working? I’m paying the bills and this guy isn’t contributing.’


EC 26:46 – But your cousins and your brother are working right? They’re helping you right?


MV 26:51 – You’re right, they are working.


EC 26:52 – And they’re helping you with this {appendicitis} right?


MV 26:54 – That’s how it is.


EC 26:55 – You only have 2 more weeks before you can return to work, right?


MV 26:57 – 2 more weeks to begin working again.


EC 27:01 – You just have to be careful.  So, knowing now what you experienced so far, would you still make the same decision to come to the US?


MV 27:11 – Well, if I found myself in the same economic situation, I would be obligated to do it.  I wouldn’t have to think about yes or no should I do it.  I felt obligated, I wanted more {from life}, really, I wanted what we deserve.


EC 27:30 – That’s the only way you saw to change things?


MV 27:33 – That’s how it is.


EC 27:34 – What are other ways to make money in Mexico?


MV 27:37 – Doing bad things.  To make easy money fast.  Doing bad things.  But I’m not that kind of person.


EC 27:46 – You didn’t want to do any of that.  Mess with drugs or….


MV 27:48 – No.  What I’ve always said is, if I’m going to get ahead it’s going to be through work.  So that if anything happens I can say, I save up money for my things.  I’ll be proud of what I have because I worked for it.


EC 28:03 – You worked for it.


MV 28:04 – That’s how it is.


EC 28:07 – What warning do you have for others that think about working for a “boss” (labor broker) like this guy?


MV 28:15 – Don’t be fooled, there’s better things than this.  Not to be afraid, because we are, like they say in Mexico, from the country (rural or “simple folk”).  Because we’re from a rural town most are afraid to leave or take a chance, fear of leaving what we’re accustomed to everyday, that things will go wrong if we do.  But it’s not like that.  Where we leave from that, things get better.  If we look for that, things get better. The only thing to do is remove our fear and sorrow and move forward.


EC 28:50 – And like what we were talking about earlier, the fear that you guys maybe have is that the Controller (man 2nd in command to the “boss”) knows where you are from.


MV 29:00 – That’s how it is.


EC 29:01 – He knows your families.


MV 29:02 – Yes, because he would charge our family if we left owning his money.  He would charge out family, in what form/manner he would try, I don’t know.


EC 29:15 – Well it’s been a pleasure sir, thank you for your time.


MV 29:19 – Been a pleasure, thank you.