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.
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.)
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"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."