Martinez, Calif. – Last month, Ijeoma Chukwunyelu and Nnamdi Onwuzulike made their first court appearance and entered pleas of not guilty in Contra Costa County’s first criminal labor trafficking case. In addition to labor trafficking under Penal Code section 236.1(a), defendants are charged with extortion and conspiracy to violate Labor Code section 1199 which requires employers to follow California’s minimum wage and hour requirements.
In this case, a woman was recruited from outside the United States to be a nanny for a family with young children in East Contra Costa County. Defendants instructed the victim to obtain her passport and visa fraudulently and claim she was coming to California for three weeks as a tourist to attend the wedding of her son and the defendants’ daughter. Because of her economic circumstances, and fear that the job opportunity would be given to someone else, the victim followed the instructions she was given. She was not aware of her legal rights to minimum wages, breaks, overtime or employment conditions under California law.
When the victim arrived in California in April of 2017, defendants took possession of her passport and visa. From the time she started until October of 2018, the defendants required her to perform work beyond what she was hired to do. She was required to sleep on the floor of the children’s room so she could care for them round the clock, to cook for the entire family and clean their 5-bedroom house for no additional wages. They did not provide the victim with breaks or days off from her work responsibilities as required by California Law. The defendants never paid her overtime for any of the additional hours she worked and continued to employ her with knowledge that her visa expired. This made the victim a particularly vulnerable worker without immigration status who was fearful of deportation.
This investigation was a collaborative effort the Brentwood Police Department, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations, the United States Department of Labor, and the California Department of Industrial Relations/Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and the Victim Witness Assistance Program within the DA’s Office. The investigation began when American Medical Response (AMR) personnel recognized a victim in need of assistance and connected her to resources that could help her.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic causes massive job losses and severe economic instability, California workers are more vulnerable than ever to exploitative employment practices. Our collaborative efforts on this investigation led to a successful filing of this case. I am proud to work with our partners at all levels of government to protect workers and seek justice for those harmed by predatory behavior,” stated Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton.
The California Labor Code and a series of 17 Wage Orders maintained by the California Department of Industrial Relations set forth state minimum wage and overtime requirements for nearly all types employees, including live-in domestic workers. The orders can be found here: https://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/WageOrderIndustries.htm and information about worker rights can be found here: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/dlse.html. These rights apply to California employees without regard to the person’s immigration status. Such illegal practices by employers could carry both civil and criminal liability for the employer even if the worker “agrees” with the employment conditions out of financial desperation, concern for their immigration status, or simply because the employee did not know their rights.
“The experience of this domestic worker represents countless more who are preyed upon because of economic desperation. These criminal acts are not only illegal but immoral,” said California Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia-Brower. “Human trafficking is modern day slavery, an we are committed to stopping it by partnering with agencies to eradicate this horrific crime.”
The case is being prosecuted by the DA’s Office, which is a member of the Contra Costa Human Trafficking Taskforce. The Taskforce is comprised of local, state and federal law enforcement and community-based victim service partners. The Task Force works collaboratively to identify and investigate all forms of trafficking in our community while providing victims with culturally competent services and support.
“Our agency remains relentlessly committed to dedicating resources to disrupt and dismantle organized crime associated with human trafficking, and will continue to work collaboratively with our Taskforce partners to make an even greater impact,” said Investigations Lieutenant Walter O’Grodnick with the Brentwood Police Department.
Any person who thinks they may be a victim of labor trafficking in Contra Costa County can make a report to the DA’s Office Human Trafficking Tip Line at 925-957-8658.
“HSI appreciates the opportunity to partner with the various agencies in the Contra Costa County Human Trafficking Task Force in order to provide victims with the resources they need and deserve and to hold the violators to account for actions akin to modern day slavery,” said Tatum King, Special Agent in Charge – HSI San Francisco.
Case information: People v. Nnamdi Onwuzulike and Ijeoma Chukwunyelu, Docket Number 04-199478-9