Trafficked to the US!

If you were an ordinary worker and applied for a job in the United States through a licensed recruitment agency and was accepted then granted a much-coveted visa, would you not believe that only the best is yet to come?

Last year, eighteen Filipinos, recruited by a licensed recruitment agency known as “ZDrive Incorporated”,  believed that the best has yet to come and backed this dream with cold cash to the tune of P250,000 each. “ZDrive” is a licensed employment agency based in Laguna which had a tie-up with an American firm named, “US Opportunities.” The latter is not the end-employer but labor sub-contracting firm owned by a certain Mike Lombardi.

During the application period, the local recruitment agency explained to the 18 workers that the available jobs being offered by US Opportunities were as food servers, waiters, cooks, and housekeepers at a country club in Florida under the H2b program that bears a working visa valid for six months and renewable for another three years. The applicants were assured that their salary will be minimum-wage compliant, meaning at least $7.00 per hour with an overtime pay starting at $10.50 per hour with free meals and transportation from their housing facilities.

The steep placement fee of P250,000 could be arranged, the local recruiter said, through a loan from PJH Lending Corporation or Asialink Finance Corporation, two lending agencies that have a preferred partnership with ZDrive, Inc.

In the end, the 18 workers were able to leave, but with tickets bound for Mississippi rather than Florida. They were able to work, but in a farm rather than a ritzy country club. They were forced to do odd jobs from raking and bailing of pine leaves to planting pine tree seedlings for wages way below the minimum. There were no free meals or free transportation. Rather than their passports, US Opportunities took hold of the workers’ Social Security cards, a must-have for future employment. Atty. Carr told me that one of the workers was made to sweep a street almost as long as EDSA of pine leaves!

Meanwhile, the lending company in the Philippines is trying to collect from the loans from the victims’ families, and are threatening to sue them for violations of the anti-bouncing check law. This case reminds me a lot of our own experience at the Blas F. Ople Policy Center in relation to the trafficking and illegal recruitment case filed by 137 bus drivers against 12 licensed recruitment agencies and an unscrupulous lending company that conspired to deploy them to Dubai for non-existent jobs. The families of the bus drivers were also subjected to harassment by RJJ Lacaba Financing Corporation, which led us to help them file a class suit in court. This case is still pending but I have been told that the latter is now trying hard to form a consortium of insurance companies that would provide compulsory liability insurance to private recruitment agencies.

A Filipino immigration lawyer, Atty. Elaine Carr, together with Catholic Charities, a faith-based non-government organization, and generous souls in the Filipino community have been helping the victims. I met Atty. Elaine Carr and am impressed by her dedication in defending the rights of our 18 workers. She is closely coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security because the temporary visas of the workers have expired. As trafficked victims, the 18 Filipinos are being allowed to stay mainly because of their role as witnesses in a major forced labor trafficking case.

It is always with a heavy heart that I commit this Sunday column space to stories about trafficked victims. In this case, I felt it was important to spread the word that if a job offer to work abroad is too good to be true, it often never is. Even if the worker has been able to secure a US visa, gone through the legal process of applying with a licensed agency, and had a formal signed contract with him when he travelled, these are not solid guarantees of fulfilled promises. In this particular case, air tickets bound for Mississippi when the jobs offered were Florida-based were red flags that everyone conveniently ignored. Labor Undersecretary Hans Cacdac also stressed that developed states also known as First World countries do not allow the charging of placement fees. What is true for Canada, is also true for the United States: no placement fees allowed. That the local recruitment agency referred the victims to a lending company to cover the cost of Php 250,000 is another red flag.

How extremely sad that these 18 workers followed all the right steps but still ended up as trafficked victims in the United States. According to Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, the local agency has been suspended and cases will be filed in coordination with the Department of Justice. Meanwhile, in behalf of all our worthy Our Times readers, let me send out a message of thanks to Atty. Elaine Carr and our labor attaché in Washington D.C., Atty. Minda Padilla, for looking after these workers’ best interests in the state of Missisippi. (Send your comments to toots.ople@yahoo.com)

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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