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State crackdown shuts migrant labor camps in Western Mass.

A task force of labor investigators shut down two “farm labor camps” in Western Massachusetts last year after finding migrant workers underpaid, overworked, and living in squalor, in part of statewide crackdown on employers that dodge wage, hours, tax, and worker safety laws.

The actions against Chang and Sons Enterprises Inc., of Whatley, as well as massage parlors in Greater Boston, were highlighted in the annual report of the Joint Task Force on the Underground Economy to be released Wednesday. The task force of state, federal, and local officials investigated hundreds of complaints, and collected some $15 million in lost wages, taxes, and penalties in 2013 — the most since the task force was launched six years ago.

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Chang and Sons Enterprises was required to pay the workers more than $305,000 in back wages and damages as well as $10,200 in civil penalties, according to the report.

“That was a particularly egregious violation,” state Labor Secretary Rachel Kaprielian said. Sounding a warning to other businesses skirting regulations, she said: “When you violate these basic premises, we’ll find you and fine you.”

Tso-Cheng Chang, president of Chang and Sons Enterprises, declined to comment. The company has operated farms in Massachusetts since 1982, according to the secretary of state’s office, selling vegetables to retailers and wholesalers throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey.

The task force, which includes various agencies in the state Labor Department and the attorney general’’s office, first convened in 2008 with the goal of not only rooting out unscrupulous businesses, but also leveling the playing field for companies that follow the law. The vast bulk of the money recovered by the task force last year, about $13 million, came from business that were not making required payments to the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

“This race-to-the-bottom hurts the economy, legitimate businesses and results in the erosion of the social fabric, economic stability, wage levels and working conditions in the Commonwealth,” the report said.

‘When you violate these basic premises, we’ll find you and fine you.’

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In addition to migrant worker problems, the task force said it uncovered “egregious” practices in the massage and bodywork industry, including those that resulted in three human trafficking investigations in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, US Diplomatic Security Service and several local police departments.

State inspectors visited approximately 20 massage businesses in Greater Boston last spring, issued more than $15,000 in fines to unlicensed practitioners and establishments.

Kaprielian said there are additional investigations of agricultural operations in Southeastern Massachusetts that involve allegations of child labor and other violations.

The investigation into Chang and Sons Enterprise began in 2011 after state officials looked into an injury complaint by a farm worker and uncovered troubling conditions at the farms.

More than 22 workers and their families were displaced when the camps were condemned and closed for failing to meet minimum health safety standards and housing code regulations.

Officials from the US Labor Department had threatened to shut down farm operations under a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that would prevent Chang from shipping vegetables to out-of-state restaurants and retail establishments.

The farms consequently came into immediate compliance with health, safety and housing rules, the report said, agreeing to pay back wages and damages to the migrant workers.

The task force received 176 complaints through its hotline (1-877-96-LABOR) in 2013. Hundreds of additional complaints came through government agencies involved in the task force’s efforts.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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