According to a new federal lawsuit, the Filipino worker who changed your sheets at W South Beach Hotel, or served you lunch at posh restaurants and country clubs, may have essentially been an indentured servant.
Seventeen Filipino immigrants allege that a ring of Miami-based employment agencies charged them outrageous "security deposits," forced them to work for less than minimum wage and no overtime, and stashed them in overcrowded housing.
All of the companies named as defendants-- San Villa Ship Management Company; Lincoln Road Employment Advisory Services, LLC; and South Beach Employment Advisory Services, LLC-- were registered to Jose B. Villanueva at the same Miami address on Northwest 33rd Avenue.
The phone number registered to those companies has been disconnected. According to the lawsuit, thirty guest workers were brought to Miami by Villanueva, purportedly to work at the W South Beach as housekeepers for $8.28 an hour.
In a statement to Riptide, the hotel's general manager George Cozonis acknowledged that the W had used Villanueva's workers in the past: "W South Beach does not currently work with Jose Villanueva's agency, Lincoln Road Employment Advisory Services, to provide staffing to the hotel or any of its affiliated operators. LREAS was used briefly during the opening period of the hotel, but all ties were severed more than 19 months ago."
Employers such as the W, The Admiral's Club country club in Jupiter, and the Kiawah Island Club in South Carolina arranged with Villanueva for the workers to immigrate under H-2B status from 2006 to 2009.
But according to the suit, once in the United States, Villanueva had many of the workers do unsanctioned work for less than minimum wage. He charged the workers "security deposits" ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 Filipino pesos-- or $1,200 to $2,350-- which they would lose if they quit those jobs. He crowded the workers in housing Florida and New Jersey, "on floors, air mattresses, and in hallways", according to the suit, and in "beds infested with bedbugs."
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The lawsuit adds that Villanueva threatened them with arrest and deportation if they quite their jobs.
The lawsuit was filed on April 19. The attorney who filed it, Felix Vinluan, has not returned calls seeking comment.