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Filipinos in Miami: Underpaid, Overworked, Underfed

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."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts