Espiritu knew little of Villanueva at the time. Florida corporate records show the entrepreneur was affiliated with companies such as South Beach Employment Advisory Services, San Villa Manpower, and San Villa Ship Management Co. They were all headquartered in a second-floor office in a maritime-industrial neighborhood near the Miami River, where Villanueva had done business since 2001.

A website for the San Villa Ship Management Co., which is still online, lists as its clients several country clubs, including South Carolina's Kiawah Island Club, Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton, and the Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter. "The company draws from a team that has the critical Asian expertise that its employee/crew manning strategies are required," the strangely worded website reads.

Upon his arrival at the crowded West Palm Beach apartment in February 2008, however, Espiritu was unemployed for two weeks. But, he says, he found he owed Villanueva more money. Every employee had to pay one month of salary, Espiritu says, or $960 — calculated at the rate of $6 per hour for 40 hours a week.

Espiritu eventually got a job waiting tables at Admiral's Cove before bouncing to the Del Ray Beach Club. Villanueva paid the workers only 30 percent of their wages, Espiritu says. He'd send the rest to the workers' families in the Philippines, minus a "tax" that varied each month. "We were really exploited," Espiritu says. "We had no idea all the schemes he was trying to do to us."

After that job dried up, Espiritu was again unemployed for several months. Villanueva then transferred him to the South Beach apartment and offered him a role as a "manager" for the staffing agency (at $6 an hour, Espiritu maintains).

Espiritu's new role was to collect checks from the various restaurants and hotels employing Villanueva's staffers. It was then, he says, that he realized how royally the workers were being screwed. Villanueva collected a rate of $17 an hour and more than $25 for overtime, Espiritu recalls, but never paid more than $6 an hour. Espiritu estimates Villanueva's total revenue each week exceeded $100,000.

The business owner bullied the workers into staying with him, according to the suit. He threatened to sue, arrest, or deport them if they left his employ — or were even caught talking to other Filipinos who weren't part of the San Villa empire.

In May 2010, Villanueva told Espiritu that he was taking the workers to get jobs in New York City hotels, including the Times Square InterContinental, Trump SoHo, and the Fairfield. Espiritu drove one of three cars that delivered 18 workers to Jersey City, where they bounced between "extremely congested" apartments, according to the lawsuit.

The move to New York was Villanueva's undoing. By January 2011, his workers still couldn't find employment at the targeted hotels or any others. The employees felt abused and hungry, and they still owed thousands to Villanueva. Soon they ended up in the Manhattan office of immigration attorney Felix Vinluan. Five months later, the Filipino lawyer filed suit in New York's Southern District federal court against Villanueva, his sister Jucilyn Villanueva, and San Villa's chief financial officer, Lorna Megarejo.

That suit followed the 2008 class-action against Star One Staffing, where Jose's brother Roberto Villanueva was vice president of international operations. It claimed the company had forced Filipino workers into cramped housing and illegally deducted room and board when providing employees to country clubs around Long Island and Westchester.

Then the state attorney general — and current New York governor — Andrew Cuomo negotiated the reportedly six-figure settlement with Star One. (The company's president, Hague, says Star One no longer hires out international guest workers.)

"I think it's a crime," Rev. Brian Jordan, a gruff New York City priest and immigration advocate, says of the exploitation of Filipino workers. "The laws of Florida and New York need to be strengthened. I think if you're caught running a scheme like that, they should throw you in jail and then ship your ass back to Manila."

It appears Jose Villanueva has handled his own transportation. On a recent day, he cleared out his San Villa Ship Management Co. office and ripped its mailbox off the wall, says the business owner next door, who asked not to be named. Around that time, says the neighbor, the mailman began arriving with scads of official-looking mail involving court cases.

Ronald Espiritu and the 16 other plaintiffs — sympathetically, if inaccurately, called the "Florida 15" by Filipino TV station ABS-CBN News — still live together in New Jersey. Espiritu works odd jobs for money. Without a green card, he faces deportation to the Philippines when the suit is resolved. A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled July 27.

But Espiritu is not as timid as he once was. "I won't leave America," he says, "until I get what is due to me."

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18 comments
Sprag_22
Sprag_22

yea so am i go back were they come from if they don,t like it

Mike
Mike

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.

Raul Diaz
Raul Diaz

We need to do something about this

Pogi_si_ako
Pogi_si_ako

your name is a terrorist name, TELL ME I AIN'T SAYING THE TRUTH!

AC
AC

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!

trayvonisadeadthug
trayvonisadeadthug

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

Monique_guzman81
Monique_guzman81

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...

Al kohalic
Al kohalic

Filipinos everywhere are underpaid. They are to Earth what Mexicans are to the United States. TELL ME I AIN'T SAYING THE TRUTH!

proactive
proactive

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,

Ja'Mookus Shabazz
Ja'Mookus Shabazz

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.

Decent_American
Decent_American

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.

AlekL
AlekL

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.

AlekL
AlekL

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.

AlekL
AlekL

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!

Bebep
Bebep

The results of incest at its finest.

Ja'Mookus Shabazz
Ja'Mookus Shabazz

The first job I ever had was as a busboy, asshole. Now, I'm a middle-aged, university-educated professional and I wouldn't hire you to wash my fucking car. That's the difference between winners in America, and whining, excuse-making losers like you. Go fuck your mother.

 
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