By MaryClaire Dale
PHILADELPHIA — Two Ukranian brothers were convicted Wednesday of smuggling desperate villagers into the United States to work in bondage. The brothers forced them to work long hours at little or no pay cleaning retail stores and office buildings.
The four-week trial in Philadelphia lifted the veil on human trafficking and forced labor in the U.S., with tales of rape, violence and deplorable living conditions.
“They call it modern-day slavery,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Velez said. “It’s hiding in plain sight.”
Nine workers who testified described being raped, beaten or threatened by Omelyan Botsvynyuk, 52, who glared at prosecutors after the verdict was announced and shouted at them in his native tongue as he was led out in handcuffs.
He denied the accusations when he testified.
The jury, though, found him guilty of using sexual and physical violence to intimidate workers.
He faces 20 years to life in prison on racketeering and extortion charges.
His brother Stepan, 36, was convicted of the racketeering enterprise but acquitted of the extortion charges. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Defense lawyers had argued that the workers would say anything to get special T-visas, set aside for trafficking victims, which would allow them to avoid returning to the Ukraine. At least five of the nine victims who testified may apply for the T-visas, Velez said.
The workers said they were promised $500 a month and came to pursue the American dream. Instead, they made little progress as they tried to pay off the cost of their serpentine journey to the U.S. and other debts owed to the brothers.
Authorities said the retail stores were unaware of the situation because they hired cleaning crews through contractors.
“I think every business should know who’s working for them, but this is a common practice in all large businesses. They use subcontractors to hire workers,” Velez said.
He said he hoped the verdict would lead to more prosecutions of human-trafficking cases in the United States.
The Botsvynyuk crews cleaned Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Safeway and other retail stores, along with homes and offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York and New Jersey.
Juror Joe Higgins, a Teamsters Union trucker from Northeast Philadelphia, said traffickers like the Botsvynyuks take jobs away from U.S. workers.
“They (the stores) should check into what kind of contractors they’re using to clean their stores. Do a little bit of digging, and make sure they’re not using illegal aliens,” said Higgins, 53. “Just because it’s cheapest, it’s not (always) right.”