Contra Costa employee charged with labor trafficking, extortion of nanny; victim allegedly paid just $1,800 per year for full time work

MARTINEZ — A Brentwood couple, including a woman who worked for Contra Costa County as a project manager, have been charged with conspiracy, extortion, and labor trafficking of their in-house nanny, the District Attorney’s office announced Monday.

Police say that Ijeoma Chukwunyelu and Nnamdi Onwuzulike recruited their nanny from Lagos, Nigeria, instructing her to file a fraudulent visa to come here. Upon her arrival, they allegedly, seized her passport, forced her to sleep on the floor of their children’s room so she could care for them around the clock.

The woman was required to do extra work, underpaid, and disallowed from taking breaks or days off, prosecutors said in a news release. Her salary was paid in Nigerian currency, but translated to $150 per month, according to the criminal complaint.

Rather than pay her directly Chukwunyelu and Onwuzulike deposited her monthly paychecks in a Nigerian account that was accessible to her daughter, the charging records allege.

“The experience of this domestic worker represents countless more who are preyed upon because of economic desperation. These criminal acts are not only illegal but immoral,” California Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia-Brower said in the news release. “Human trafficking is modern day slavery, an we are committed to stopping it by partnering with agencies to eradicate this horrific crime.”

At their first court appearance last month, Chukwunyelu and Onwuzulike pleaded not guilty. A trial date has not yet been set.

Public records identify Chukwunyelu as an “info system project manager” employed by Contra Costa County. In 2019, she was paid $228,984.10 in salary and benefits, according to Transparent California.

Authorities say it all started in 2017, when Chukwunyelu and Onwuzulike allegedly instructed the woman to file a false visa application stating she was coming to California for three weeks as a tourist. When she arrived, they allegedly took her passport and employed her as a nanny.

“Because of her economic circumstances, and fear that the job opportunity would be given to someone else, the victim followed the instructions she was given,” the DA news release says. “She was not aware of her legal rights to minimum wages, breaks, overtime or employment conditions under California law.”

For the next year and a half, the woman was required to clean the five-bedroom home and cook for the family, as well as care for the children. She was never paid overtime for additional work, and continued to work there after her visa expired, authorities allege. The news release says that because of her undocumented status she was “particularly vulnerable” to being exploited by employers.

Without elaboration, prosecutors said the news release started in late 2018, when medical responders recognized the woman was “a victim in need” and referred her case to authorities.

The case was investigated by federal and state authorities, including Brentwood police, Homeland Security Investigations, the DA’s human trafficking task force, the US Department of Labor and the state Department of Industrial Relations.

Any person who thinks they may be a victim of labor trafficking in Contra Costa County can make a report to the DA’s Office Human Trafficking Tip Line at 925-957-8658.

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