Diana clasps her hands, which seem too small to be cracked and callused, as she tells her story publicly for the first time. As a waitress and dishwasher at Costa del Sol in Pacoima, California, she said she worked close to 50 hours a week for nearly two years. She wasn’t even in middle school yet. Diana, now 13, was a victim of human trafficking.
KCRW is not using her real first name to protect her identity.
Listen to Diana’s story:
Her story, recounted by her and Los Angeles County prosecutors, illustrates how difficult it is to uncover instances of labor trafficking in the restaurant industry. It’s a crime that experts say is not common but may be growing and hard to stop.
When Diana showed up late or made a mistake on the job, she was hit. When she wasn’t waiting tables, she had to clean her captor’s apartment. If she didn’t get it clean enough, she was struck with a belt.
Diana’s ordeal started in El Salvador, where she was purchased for $10,000 by a family acquaintance, Dora Alicia Valle. Diana’s mother had planned to have an abortion, instead she gave birth to Diana after promising her to Valle. When Diana turned 8, Valle took ownership of her and brought her to Los Angeles.
A month after enrolling Diana in the third grade, Valle forced her to work at Costa del Sol. Valle was a manager at the pupuseria. After school, Diana had 10 minutes to get to the restaurant on time or she would be punished. She routinely worked until 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 14-hour days on the weekends. In her two years working at the restaurant, she got a single day off.
“I felt like there was no way I could say I’m going to the park or go have fun with someone. When I would get invited to places I wouldn’t be allowed to go,” Diana recalled. “[Valle] would say, ‘You got to go to work.’”
For all the work she did, Diana received $30 a week, but she was only allowed to keep $5 or $10.
Valle also expected Diana to make a certain amount in tips on the weekends and demanded a cut.
“On Sundays, she would ask me for the money and if I didn’t have it she’d get mad,” said Diana.
When police officers dined at the restaurant, Valle would tell Diana to kneel on the kitchen floor until they left. Occasionally, customers would question Diana about why she was always there, waiting tables.
“The owners would say, ‘Oh that’s my grandkid,” and the customers would think, ‘Oh they’re just helping,’” said Diana.
While in school, she couldn’t focus on class because the restaurant was always on her mind. She’d been a good student in El Salvador but fell behind in Los Angeles. She rarely did her homework because by the time she got home she was exhausted. She didn’t have her own bedroom and slept on the sofa. The commotion of three other roommates made it hard to sleep.
“I got held back in third grade,” Diana said. “That still bugs me now because I shouldn’t be the grade I am in now. That bothers me a lot because I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve this.”
Diana eventually ran away. She didn’t get far and was returned the same day by police. Diana said she tried to tell the officers what was happening to her, but they didn’t listen. She ran away a second time and called a customer she had befriended. That time, Diana asked the customer to call the Department of Children and Family Services instead of the police.
Diana is now in foster care and hoping to find a permanent home. Eventually, she would like to go to college to pursue a degree in social work. She said she would like to go back to El Salvador and live with her aunt, who always made her feel special.
“I received dolls and presents and I enjoyed playing with them. I don’t like playing with dolls anymore. Since everything that happened with Alicia, I don’t like playing with dolls,” Diana wrote in her victim impact statement.
“I don’t think like a kid,” said Diana. “I think like a grownup.”
Earlier this year, Valle was convicted of one count each of human trafficking and slavery.
Restaurant industry vulnerable to labor trafficking
Nationally, 200 cases of labor trafficking have been reported this year to the federally funded National Human Trafficking Resource Center. A case like Diana’s is rare but part of a disturbing trend: California has been the top state for labor trafficking cases for the past five years, according to the NHTRC.
“What I’ve seen recently is that it’s a lot bigger than we know,” said Bill Murphy, a prosecutor with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Human Trafficking Task Force. “I’ve been involved recently in several cases and I keep finding more and more.” He said it’s a “hidden in plain sight” crime.
Murphy has tried several cases that involve the restaurant industry and has uncovered conditions best described as modern day slavery.
“My dog at home lives better,” said Murphy. “At one restaurant the worker was living behind the restaurant in a cinder block enclosure where you would commonly find the garbage cans. It had a tin roof on it, a little mattress and about four feet where he could stand up and get dressed.”
Many of the workers Murphy encounters make the perfect victims for traffickers. They are culturally isolated, don’t speak English, and are scared of law enforcement.
“They have been taught and trained, ‘If you talk to people, you are going to get in trouble or deported from the country and jailed,’” Murphy said. “So there’s a built in wall there that we have to work through.”
Experts say because human trafficking is hard to detect, it’s hard to stop.
California Labor Commissioner Julie Su has added training for inspectors to better spot labor trafficking. Su previously worked as a human rights lawyer on some of California’s biggest trafficking cases, like representing more than 70 Thai workers trapped in an El Monte sweatshop.
One of the recent cases that came before the Labor Commissioner’s Office involved 10 Chinese buffet restaurants in the Bay Area.
Investigative records obtained by KCRW show 70 Guatemalan workers were forced to live in two office spaces above one of the restaurants. They were charged $200 a month in rent and docked $5 if they didn’t take their shoes off. The workers were paid the equivalent of $5 an hour. A concerned customer tipped off the labor commissioner in 2014, and that office eventually awarded $16 million in back pay to 600 workers. Criminal prosecutions of some of the owners are ongoing.
Cheating in ‘every way they could find’
In April, two owners and a manager of a chain of Malaysian restaurants in Northern California were charged with fraud and labor exploitation, involving wage theft, workers’ compensation violations, and human trafficking. Prosecutors accused them of cheating at the Mango Garden restaurants in “every way they could find” and grossly mistreating their employees along the way.
The group of Guatemalan and Malaysian immigrants were routinely forced to work for free at the restaurants and kept in “meager living circumstances.” When they were paid, it was typically in cash, according to Alameda County Superior Court records.
The recent filings by the District Attorney’s office detail incidents of abuse, coercion and threats by the restaurant owners.
Co-owner Synn Jia Chuah met “Daniel” Tan at the San Francisco airport when Tan arrived from Malaysia. Once here, Chuah allegedly took Tan’s cash and passport and forced him “under the threat of being forced to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge” to work wherever Chuah told him to. Tan first worked at a fish market, then a marijuana cultivation operation, and finally Mango Garden. Chuah collected all of Tan’s pay except $100 for food, according to court filings. A manager helped Tan escape last year.
When a prep cook was seriously injured in a fall on the kitchen floor, co-owner Hai Jai Chen took her to the hospital and warned her she’d be fired if she said she was hurt at work, according to the filings. Medical records show Chen did the interpreting between the worker and the doctors and explained the injury as a slip and fall at home. The worker’s pay was docked $2,000 because she had to miss work several times.
The examination room can be one of the few opportunities for a trafficking victim to be identified. A recently published research survey found two of every three trafficked victims at some point went to a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. That’s a critical opportunity for medical staff, and one that’s often missed says Dr. Hanni Stoklosa, an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston.
“We are not as good yet as a health care field at identifying labor trafficking victims,” said Stoklosa, a leading expert on human trafficking in the U.S.
One study found just 5 percent of emergency room staff surveyed thought they could identify a trafficking victim.
Stoklosa is trying to increase awareness among healthcare professionals and encouraging them to look for certain signs while examining patients.
“I am looking for patients coming in with other individuals controlling the room, trying to control the entire process or what the patient is trying to tell me,” said Stoklosa.
The injured prep cook at Mango Garden begged the owner to take her back to the hospital after falling ill. He refused and fired her, according to court filings.
Mango Garden has closed and attempts to reach the owners were unsuccessful. One attorney said “no comment,” and the others have not responded to calls. The defendants will have a pretrial hearing on Aug. 17.
Murphy, the Alameda prosecutor, hopes customers will take notice of the people cooking and serving them food:
“I hope citizens take an extra second to think about what they are really seeing and report it to law enforcement.”