From hotel workers to farm hands: 18 Pinoys trafficked to the US

The Blas F. Ople Policy Center has been actively involved in several human trafficking cases. Most of the victims were trafficked to Malaysia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Nigeria, and Singapore. This is the very first human trafficking case referred to us where the victims were sent to the United States.

Yesterday, I was invited to a meeting followed by a press conference at the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration. Nicon Fameronag, the communications head of the labor department, introduced me to Filipino immigration lawyer Atty. Elaine Carr. Elaine travelled all the way from Mississippi just to meet the wives and relatives of 18 Filipinos who were trafficked to the US by a licensed recruitment agency named ZDrive Inc.

According to Atty. Carr, the 18 workers were recruited by the Laguna-based firm for jobs as food servers, waiters, cooks, and housekeepers at a country club in Florida in 2009. They were charged an average of Php 250,000 each as placement fee and for other contingencies. Those who couldn’t afford the fees were referred to two lending companies: AsiaLink Finance Corporation and PJH Lending Corporation where they were able to borrow without collateral and the usual intensive credit investigation.

Upon arrival in the US, the group of 18 workers ended up as farm hands in Mississippi. They were forced to do odd jobs from raking and bailing of pine leaves to planting pine tree seedlings for wages far less than what they were offered. ZDrive, their local recruiter, promised them a salary ranging from $7.00 an hour with an overtime pay starting at $10.50 per hour together with free meals and free transportation from their housing facilities. None of these promises came true. One of the workers was forced to work for only a $1 an hour.

Eventually, the workers were contracted out to work in various hotels and entertainment facilities but with wages way below the US minimum wage. Soon enough, their temporary working visas expired though US Opportunities continued to hold on to their social security cards. Thankfully, the workers were able to seek the help of a faith-based charity organization named Catholic Charities which then engaged the services of Atty. Elaine Carr as a lawyer. Atty. Carr brought the human trafficking case to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security which acted swiftly in investigating the matter. Today, the 18 workers continue to stay in the US as trafficked victims with pending cases filed against US Opportunities.

Unfortunately, as they fight their legal  battle overseas, their families also have to fend off the harassment by the lending companies. One of the wives informed Atty. Carr and the Ople Center that she had already received a notice regarding a suit filed by PJH Lending Corporation for violations of the anti-bouncing check law.  We at the Ople Center recommended that the workers’s families organize themselves so they can initiate a class suit against ZDrive and the two lending corporations.

I am blogging about this case to warn others that human trafficking takes place even from Manila to the US. The 18 workers were forced to work under unlawful and substandard conditions of work. Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz announced that her department will file cases  against ZDrive in coordination with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima of the DOJ. She also directed OWWA Administrator Carmelita Dimzon to render the appropriate humanitarian assistance to the victims’ families.

True, the workers did get to travel to the US. But they remain there as unwitting hostages to a failed dream, and as vital eyewitnesses to a crime that led them from Laguna to Louisiana. Meanwhile, ZDrive Inc has been suspended while the lenders continue to get what they can from the victims’ families.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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