The Mercury News: Silvery Towers labor woes draw accusations of human trafficking and slave labor

By: George Avalos

August 9, 2018

SAN JOSE — Hundreds of protesters rallied in front of the soaring Silvery Towers high-rises in downtown San Jose on Thursday, accusing the project’s principal developer, Full Power Properties, of slave labor, human trafficking and wage theft.

About 400 construction workers, including dozens who displayed signs referring to the development as “Slavery Towers,” demanded that Santa Clara County supervisors approve measures to curb what they described as wage theft affecting numerous South Bay workers.

“For two years, we have been loudly expressing our concerns about wage theft at Silvery Towers,” said David Bini, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council in Santa Clara County and San Benito County. “We know that workers were exploited, and are being exploited, at Silvery Towers.”

China-based Full Power Properties, which has its local offices in Foster City, dismissed the union rally as a “publicity stunt.”

“Full Power Properties sees this protest as nothing but a misplaced publicity stunt to blame the builder for alleged wrongdoings by a subcontractor over a year ago,” the developer said in a prepared release. “This labor issue was addressed and resolved with the Department of Labor. The union is merely agitating people in an attempt to pressure Full Power to exclusively hire union labor and build its membership on this and future construction projects in San Jose.”

Questionable wage and labor practices at Silvery Towers first surfaced in 2017 when more than a dozen immigrant workers, who authorities said were being held in captivity in a Hayward warehouse, were freed by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Federal prosecutors and Hayward police claimed that Job Torres Hernandez forced his workers at Silvery Towers and other construction projects around the Bay Area to work without pay. Hernandez was indicted on charges of harboring illegal immigrants for commercial advantage or private financial gain.

On July 18, the U.S. Labor Department announced that after its investigation into the pay violations, 22 workers were paid $250,000 by Foster City-based Full Power Properties, the Chinese developer of the 650-unit Silvery Towers project. The department said that when not on the job, those workers had “lived in captivity in squalid conditions in a warehouse” controlled by Job Torres, an unlicensed subcontractor doing business as Nobilis Construction.

“It’s a dark day when slave labor is allowed to happen in San Jose,” Will Smith, a business representative for Local 332 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said during the protest Thursday. “What happened here at Slavery Towers must be exposed.”

The protest spilled into the street between the two towers and San Pedro Square.

Construction workers urged South Bay politicians to enact the nation’s strongest wage theft and anti-slavery laws and demanded that Santa Clara County’s $950 million affordable housing bond money only go to cities and other jurisdictions that adopt these laws.

“We live in one of the richest locations in the world,” said Ruth Silver Taube, an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University and coordinator of the Santa Clara County Wage Theft Coalition. “Yet every single day, workers are exploited and not paid for their labor.”