By Terrence McCoy
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By day, Ronald Espiritu and his crew of fellow Filipino workers logged hours in some of Florida's poshest environs: the W South Beach hotel, Lincoln Road's Quattro Italian restaurant, and Admiral's Cove country club in Jupiter. During Art Basel, when Miami was flooded with haughty art-seeking Europeans, the Filipinos worked 100 hours per week serving delicacies and turning sheets.
At night they returned to cramped quarters arranged by an employment agency. First they lived in an apartment in West Palm Beach, with ten men and women squashed into three bedrooms. The workers were tortured nightly by bedbugs, says Espiritu, a gentle and earnest 33-year-old with a slight build. Then he lived with four others in a studio on Meridian Avenue across from the Miami Beach Convention Center. Every patch of floor was claimed by a bed. Dinner was Spam and rice.
Money might have made it worth the pain. But employment agency owner Jose B. Villanueva paid the workers only $6 an hour — far below Florida's minimum wage — with no overtime, the workers claim in a federal lawsuit filed this past April. Sometimes, they allege, he didn't pay them at all. He even pilfered pesos from the money they sent back home to their families and charged them "deposits" in the thousands of dollars, which were forfeited if they chose other employment, Espiritu says. And Villanueva sometimes threatened them with imprisonment or deportation.
Espiritu and 16 others — all of them in the United States with a special kind of work visa — charge Villanueva with human trafficking, wage theft, and unfair labor practices. Days after the suit was filed, the W South Beach distanced itself from Villanueva's agencies, saying his service "was used briefly during the opening period of the hotel, but all ties were severed more than 19 months ago."
It's not the first such storm weathered by Villanueva, a 51-year-old former sailor from the Philippines. His Miami-based hiring agency, San Villa Ship Management Co., was sued by at least 26 Filipino workers in 2009 and 2010 for allegedly not paying minimum wage or overtime. Villanueva countersued his former employees for breach of contract, according to court documents, and the plaintiffs dropped their claims. Villanueva's attorney in that legal battle, John Y. Benford, maintains that the workers' claims were "frivolous."
"Villanueva gave [the workers] a great opportunity to better their lives," Benford says, "and they took advantage of [him] as well as U.S. immigration policy."
Jose Villanueva's brother, Roberto Villanueva, has also been subject to claims of worker abuse. As a vice president at Coral Gables-based Star One Staffing, he's been named in three class-action lawsuits filed in Arkansas and Florida since 2008. Star One settled one of those cases for a confidential amount totaling $113,454, according to later court claims.
Roberto could not be reached at Star One; company president Mary Jane Hague says he no longer works there. "Star One has consistently denied all allegations made against them," Marlene Quintana, an attorney representing the company, said in a statement.
Felix Vinluan, the New York-based lawyer who filed the April suit on behalf of Espiritu and his co-workers, believes that both brothers have returned to the Philippines. He has thus far been unable to serve Jose Villanueva with court papers.
The story told by the Villanuevas's alleged victims displays the potential pitfalls of a guest worker program called H-2B, which was implemented under President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to lure laborers to America to work short stints for cheap wages. The temporary nonagricultural visa allows U.S. employers to petition for migrants to do "seasonal" jobs for which they can't find American workers, for six months at a time. Last year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services capped the amount of workers eligible for the visas at 33,000 each six months.
But abuse is common. In Georgia, 3,000 H-2B workers sued a forestry company for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage in 2006. Two years later, a landscaping company called Brickman Group was ordered to pay back wages to more than a hundred such guest workers for taking visa and transportation fees out of their paychecks, resulting in pay less than minimum wage.
And Filipinos are a particularly easy target for exploitation, according to a June 2012 U.S. Department of State report that noted "migrant workers [from that country] who became trafficking victims were often subject to violence, threats, inhumane living conditions, nonpayment of salaries, and withholding of travel and identity documents."
Ronald Espiritu's H-2B visa ordeal began in 2008 when the then-29-year-old learned of the program while living with his "auntie" in the countryside outside Manila. Back then, it appeared to be a ticket away from dire beginnings. He had been abandoned by his mother, and his father was serving a prison sentence for drug dealing. "I had a dream that I wanted to have a family one day," Espiritu says. "I wanted to have a house and a good girl. I wanted to go to America to make true all of these dreams I had in my head."
When a friend told Espiritu about a Manila employment agency that specialized in H-2Bs, he traveled there and met Villanueva, a Napoleonic little man in a slick suit and tie. Villanueva spoke of previously working for Carnival Cruise Lines, Espiritu recalls. He promised employment at a five-star hotel. Espiritu signed a contract, which was blank, according to the lawsuit. And he never saw a copy. Then Villanueva demanded a "security bond" of 50,000 Filipino pesos — about $1,200. Espiritu claims he had to borrow the cash from a loan shark.
Filipinos? How about English only speakers? I have a four year degree and tons of experience from past jobs and all that doesn't seem to matter in Miami. You need to be fluent Spanish or interviews seem to go sour pretty quick.
i dont know what the hell your talking about i live in San Francisco and a lot of Mexican Americans have the best jobs out here most of them are teachers, detectives, police officers and work for the DA and Filipinos are mostly nurses out here ..your just generalizing and plain ignorant!
I honor mexicans ,filipinos and all "import laborers" these people work hard and take any honarable job regardless of how little they are paid because supporting their families is a priority, unlike the majority of the african american black ghetto niggers who have to be supported with food stamps and section 8, because they are lazy and dont care about family
not all, sir. white collar jobs are not included here, so don't generalized at all. RN po ako and I get paid $650 for each 12 hours that I work in the hospital. americans looks highly of the kind of service that we usually do in our line of job. just for clarification...
Filipinos everywhere are underpaid. They are to Earth what Mexicans are to the United States. TELL ME I AIN'T SAYING THE TRUTH!
Why do we continue to import laborers from other countries when there are not even enough jobs for Americans. They end up just being another burden on the country,
Because Americans are spoiled and don't want to do any of these jobs. They all want to make $50 - $60 in hour, rate that was negotiated by the Unions while no education and barely any common sense. Don't get me wrong not all of them but a large majority for sure. All of these "import laborers" as you put it are happy to have a job, have an opportunity to earn their pay and provide for their families.
effing ignorance! It doesn't feel good when you being underpaid by the company you work for. In their case this company is breaking a federal law...once you sponsor someone for work you sign a contract and the company has to follow it. And all this company is doing is taking an advantage of people that didn't know any better. So why don't you sip on your PBR and leave intelligent conversations to others.
These temp visas for unskilled labor, seasonal or otherwise, are complete fucking bullshit. Almost everyone I know has worked shit jobs when we were young or broke. Unemployment is off the charts in most places and we're fucking bringing people in to serve drinks? I paid my way through college working as a fucking bartender.
yeah young! these people are adults that trying to feed their families...also the jobs that they get aren't bar tending, most likely its busboys and room service...which i'm sure you wouldn't want to do and never did...you paid your way through college you say?! should have spend that money to get a common sense instead!
Maybe if these dog eaters had stayed in the Philippines we wouldn't have all these problems.They are dirty, ignorant and butt ugly. They are the Niggers of Southeast Asia. The only reason God put them on earth is so fat, ugly white men can get laid for $5.