MANHATTAN (CN) - Seventeen Filipino workers say in a federal RICO complaint that they were sold into forced labor at country clubs and hotels in Florida, South Carolina and New York, lured by promises that employment agencies and employers never fulfilled.
Lead plaintiff Ma Cecilia Delgado claims that she and others were lured to the United States from 2006 to 2009 under H-2B guest worker status, with false promises of fair pay, humane treatment and green cards that never came.
Instead, they say, they were paid less than minimum wages, stiffed for overtime, were packed into overcrowded housing and compelled into forced labor under threat of deportation.
Named as defendants are San Villa Ship Management Co., Lincoln Road Employment Advisory Services, South Beach Employment Advisory Services, lead defendant Jose B. Villanueva, Lorna Melgarejo and Jose and Jucilyn Villanueva.
Villanueva is president, CEO and/or director of all the corporate defendants, all of which operate out of his address in Miami, according to the complaint.
The workers say they had to pay security deposits of 50,000 to 100,000 Philippine pesos, roughly $1,200 to $2,350 U.S., which they lost if they left their jobs before their contracts expired.
They say the companies prevented them from leaving by telling them their bosses' contacts in the U.S. and Philippine governments could arrest and deport them.
The only government officials named in the complaint are Nenita Giessman, a U.S. immigration officer, and Angelo Macatangay, the Philippine government's Honorary Consul. Neither are named as defendants, but some plaintiffs say Villanueva made certain promises to them in front of both officials, "Ms. Giessmann nodding her head in agreement during defendant Villanueva's speech," and Macatangay telling them "that he would assist defendant Villanueva in whatever way he could regarding defendants' legal problems as he allegedly owed Villanueva a debt of gratitude for previously assisting him during his trip to the Philippines," according to the complaint.
A 2011 U.S. State Department "Trafficking in Persons Report" found that complicity in human trafficking by the Philippine government complicates the plight of exploited workers.
"Unfortunately, 'law enforcement officials' complicity in human trafficking remains a pervasive problem in the Philippines, and corruption at all levels of government enables traffickers to prosper," the complaint states, citing the report. "There continue to be reports that officials in government units and agencies assigned to enforce laws against human trafficking permitted trafficking offenders to conduct illegal activities.' This perception contributes to overseas workers' own sense of vulnerability to threats and complete control by their traffickers and prevents them from feeling safe enough to report their traffickers' activities or return to the Philippines."
If the workers tried to leave, they claim, they were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, deportation, cancellation of their visas and blacklisting.
They seek treble damages for RICO fraud, misrepresentation, and violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Alien Tort Statute, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
They are represented by Felix Q. Vinluan.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.