Agency Accused of Human Trafficking

WEST PALM BEACH (CN) – Thirteen Filipinos say the staffing agency that brought them to the United States placed them in “severely overcrowded” homes and forced them to work for virtually nothing under the constant threat of deportation. One worker says that after deducting for housing and living expenses, Star One Staffing paid her $1.50 for a month’s work.

     Miami-based Star One treated the Filipino workers like indentured servants while they lived in its cramped dorms in Miami and New York, according to a federal complaint.
     The workers claim Star One routinely threatened to have their visas revoked if they left the dorms without authorization.
     Star One and its staff “also held critical immigration documents of some plaintiffs, deliberately increasing their sense of powerlessness to leave,” according to the 72-page complaint.
     The workers say Star One president Mary Jane Hague recruited 10 of them from their homes in the Philippines in the fall of 2006, promising them jobs at Miami-area country clubs.
     Hague’s husband at the time, nonparty Andrew Hague, a judge in Florida’s 11th Circuit Court, went along on the recruiting trips and lent a sense of legitimacy to Star One’s operation, the complaint states.
     The workers say that after arriving in America under Star One’s wing, they found that the agency’s promises to pay them a fair wage and expedite their U.S. permanent resident status were empty.
     Star One herded them into crowded homes “in which up to 40 workers resided,” in one case, with almost 20 workers sleeping in a single room, according to the complaint.
     Plaintiff Arries Cayula, who worked for Star One in New York, says Star One housed him at the Norwick Motel in Oyster Bay for weeks, in a room with 15 others.
     The workers – men and women – labored long hours in area country clubs, often for less than minimum wage, the complaint states.
     Star One’s Miami supervisors allegedly exerted dominion over the workers’ every move.
     “Before being permitted to leave Star One housing, plaintiffs were required to tell an agent of Star One where they were going and how to reach them,” the complaint states.
     When one worker returned to Star One housing later than expected, the agency’s human resources coordinator, Ted Ravelo, “issued a memo saying he had called the police to find them and recommending to Star One that they be forced to return to the Philippines,” according to the complaint.
     Ravelo, who is not named as a defendant, allegedly wrote in the memo that “[the worker’s] behavior should be treated with ‘summary severity.'”
     Plaintiff Rezza Real claims that Star One supervisor Lina Fernandez yelled at her for eating a package of microwaved noodles without permission.
     Real says she decided to “escape” when she found that after Star One had deducted her living costs, “her paycheck for the prior month totaled approximately $1.50 despite [her] working over 40 hours each week.”
     When one worker “escaped,” Fernandez and Roberto Villanueva held a meeting with the rest to warn them that if they left Star One’s housing, they would be reported to immigration authorities, the complaint states. The workers say they were told that leaving Star One would have dire consequences for their future in America.
     Star One transferred several of them to New York, threatening that if they didn’t go, their visas would be revoked, the complaint states.
     Mary Hague told Courthouse News in a telephone interview that she had not been served and could not respond to the allegations before reading the complaint.
     Her company has been sued in Federal Court at least three times in the past 10 years, accused of failing to pay overtime wages, court records show.
     In January, another group of Filipinos recruited by Star One filed a federal complaint in Arkansas alleging that Star One’s deduction of housing and living costs from their paycheck left them either indebted to the agency or with nearly no cash.
     In that case, plaintiff Morena Roco claimed she worked more than 60 hours over a 10-day span in the summer of 2009, and that after Star One’s deductions, she netted less than $50.
     The Arkansas plaintiffs’ allegations, like those in the Florida case, are predicated on a New York law that prohibits an employer from deducting food or lodging costs from a worker’s pay.
     Federal labor laws do not prohibit the payment of wages in food or housing, but the State of New York’s labor law differs.
     Most of the Filipino workers in both the Florida and Arkansas cases worked for Star One in New York state at some point and were protected under Section 193 of the state’s labor law, which essentially limits paycheck deductions to insurance premiums, pension or health benefits, and labor union dues.
     In 2007, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought civil charges against Hague and Star One on behalf of 94 Filipino workers, alleging that Star One had violated these paycheck deduction limitations. The case ended with a $113,000 settlement, the judge’s final order shows.
     While these previous cases against Star One include accusations of minimum wage violations and illegal paycheck deductions, the human rights abuses alleged in the Florida suit set it apart.
     The defendants in Florida are Star One International Staffing, Star One Staffing International, Roberto Villanueva, Lina Fernandez, Mary Jane Hague, John Carruthers, and Ruth Carruthers.
     The plaintiffs seek damages for human trafficking, forced labor, fraud, unjust enrichment, racketeering, wire fraud, mail fraud, immigration document fraud, and labor law violations. They are represented by Gregory Schell with Florida Legal Services of Lake Worth.

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