'Florida 15' expose employer abuse

by Don Tagala, ABS-CBN News North America Bureau

Posted at Jul 12 2011 05:26 PM | Updated as of Jul 13 2011 10:45 PM

JERSEY CITY, USA – Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas and other Filipinos who came out of the shadow, Filipino H2-B seasonal workers from Miami, Florida have decided to reveal their stories as well.

They call themselves the "Florida 15," a group of Filipino workers who claim they are victims of human trafficking by their Filipino employer, Jose Villanueva, who owns recruitment and employment company San Villa Ship Management Co.

They have left their employer in Miami and are now seeking the help of Filipino organizations in New York and New Jersey.

'Florida 15' expose employer abuse 1
The Florida 15.

Patricia Ballesteros came to the US in 2009 to work as a housekeeper at the W Hotel in Miami. She said many of them paid San Villa Ship Management up to $300,000 for placement and training fees just to get jobs in Florida.

"Siyempre dream ng most Filipinos, pag-inisip nila ang America, nandun yung greener pastures. Kaya yung dream na makapunta ng America. Fortunately, pinalad naman, sa US embassy pa lang, kahit alam natin mahirap yung process sa embassy," Ballesteros said.

"Unfortunately, pagdating namin dito, medyo naging masaklap," she added.

Mars Escubido came to the US to work as a housekeeper for W-Hotel and was also recruited by San Villa in 2009. He says he now owes more than $7,000 from a lender in the Philippines.

"Habang nagtatrabaho kami sa W-Hotel, patagal ng patagal, nalaman namin na $16 to $17 yung per hour namin, pero ang binibigay lang niya sa amin ay $6 per hour. Yung overtime namin flat rate din sa $6," Escubido said.

Many of them said that they are only paid once a month and that their paychecks are usually late.

Ronald Espiritu said that he worked for Villanueva as an Area Manager for San Villa from 2008 to March 2011. He said the money is there but Villanueva cannot explain to them why San Villa is not paying its employees properly and on time.

"As a manager, kitang-kita ko yung sweldo, every week," Espiritu said. "Walang kliyente sa America na magde-delay ng bayad."

Espiritu said that they received the payment from their clients every week, including the hotel where Escubido and Ballesteros worked.

Many of the workers have overstayed their visas without knowing it, because San Villa Ship Management allegedly failed to renew their Seasonal H2-B visas.

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Alleged illegal recruiter, Jose Villanueva.

Annabelle Sibayan said that she was told that San Villa was renewing her work visa. But she was arrested by agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) for overstaying.

"Ang sabi sa amin ni Jojo Villanueva, lumuhod daw kami sa Police para lang huwag kaming ma-detain," Sibayan said. "Inisip ko, agency kita, dapat nandito ka sa amin dahil tao mo kami."

Sibayan is now undergoing deportation proceedings.

 The National Alliance for Filipino Concern (NAFCON) promised to help the Florida 15.

Gary Labao of NAFCON said that they will help the workers find jobs and get lawyers who will take on their case pro bono.

Court records show that this is not the first time San Villa’s owner, Jose Villanueva, has been accused of wage theft and unfair labor practices by their recruits.

There have been other individuals who have sued Villanueva and are still awaiting judgment on their cases.

Balitang America tried to contact the San Villa office in Miami, but the line has been disconnected. A recorded message on Jose Villanueva's cell phone, meanwhile, said that the owner is out of the country.

For more stories, visit Balitang America.