It’s a case of modern-day slavery, federal authorities say.
Two men and a women were charged Thursday with smuggling at least 20 girls and young women from the West African nation of Togo and forcing them to work at hair braiding salons in Newark and East Orange.
The females told investigators that they worked without pay for up to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. They said that if they complained or did not follow the rules, they would be beaten. And they were threatened to be sent back to Africa if they objected to working without pay, they said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the workers were brought to the United States through a lottery that lets people from some countries have visas to move to the U.S. Authorities said the alleged victims posed as relatives of lottery winners so they could get into the country.
"This is a case of modern-day slavery," said Tom Manifase, deputy special agent in charge of investigations for the immigration agency's Newark office. "These women were promised a better life in the U.S. but instead ended up becoming victims of human trafficking."
The suspects, like the females, are Togolese nationals. Lassissi Afolabi, 44, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, 39, and Dereck Hounakey, 30, all face charges of harboring illegal aliens, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Kpade Afolabi is also charged with smuggling illegal aliens for financial gains, which can be punished by 10 years in prison.
Lassissi Afolabi's 19-year-old son, Akl Afolabi, told the Star-Ledger of Newark for Friday's newspapers that the claims against his mother, aunt and family friend were false and that the women were paid for their work.
"They got everything they needed and it was better than Africa," he said. "Everybody was treated well. We helped them."
He showed a reporter two bedrooms in the family home where he said three of the salon workers lived. Each room had a television and closets that were full of clothing.
The 20 females are now in protective custody where they have access to emergency housing and counseling.
The suspects were ordered held without bail and were due in court again Friday.