Vol. 46, Issue 1 ‣ investigations

How the System Enables Labor Trafficking

It’s All About the Greed

by Paul Guzzo

Jofer Margallo Trinos came to South Florida with dozens of Filipino workers lured by promises of well-paying jobs at country clubs and hotels, visits to Disney World, and free food and housing.

To pay the $4,000-$5,000 agency fee to move from the Philippines to Florida, they cut deals with loan sharks, borrowed from relatives, sold anything of value they had, and did whatever else they had to do.

Once in Florida, the immigrants were so hungry they begged for food from strangers.

Trinos told a federal judge in December 2010, during the sentencing hearing for the operators of the agency that brought them to Florida, “We cannot go freely anywhere… Life there is like hell. We are treated like slave[s]. We are treated worse than dogs.”

The Filipinos’ traffickers were caught only after their victims sought food at a Catholic Church and a parishioner alerted Marilou Macatangay, chief of staff of the Philippines Consul General in Fort Lauderdale.

Sophia Manuel and her husband, Alfonso Baldonado, who owned Quality Staffing Services Corp. and DAR Workforce Solutions USA, were arrested and pled guilty to charges related to forced labor. Manuel was sentenced to 78 months in prison for forced labor conspiracy and false written statements. Baldonado was sentenced to 51 months for forced labor conspiracy.

“These people are a disgrace to our country,” Trinos told the court. “We sacrificed everything hoping for us to have a better life in the land of opportunity.”

A 2010 report from Florida State University found that the majority of victims identified in Florida from 2004 to 2010 were victims of labor trafficking. With tourism and agriculture labor needs already drawing traffickers, the recession and severe hurricanes further increased the demand for low-wage workers which in turn increased trafficking, experts said.

“We are starting to see, not only in the state of Florida, but we’re starting to hear from other agencies throughout the nation that they are seeing more labor trafficking cases than sex trafficking,” said Anna Rodriguez, founder of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports in its key finding for 2012 that forced labor accounts for more than one-third of all trafficking cases and has doubled over the past four years.

Tom Gillan, executive director of the National Institute for Human Trafficking Research and Training, says, “Human trafficking is all about one thing: greed.”

Florida’s large tourist population, numerous hotels and resorts and extensive agricultural production have made it a magnet for the labor traffickers engaged in that greed.

Crimes involving foreign workers are often associated with undocumented workers smuggled across the Mexican border by “coyotes,” but crimes related to workers who enter the country legally, such as the Filipinos, are no less exploitative. Legal or illegal, the foreign worker is subject to the same abuses, most commonly wage deductions for food, lodging and other expenses that exceed the worker’s income and create debt that can never be paid off.

“The trafficker deducts everything they provide,” Rodriguez said. “We have seen cases where victims...get a paycheck with a negative value.”

Workers legally and illegally entering the country are also likely to become part of a labyrinthine visa system that is fraught with opportunities for criminal misuse.

Wilson and Valeria Barbugli made $52 million operating a staffing company, Very Reliable Services, by forging visas for illegal workers and contracting them to 160 hotels, including the Hilton Walt Disney World Resort and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The couple received a $55 million judgment and prison sentences on charges of conspiracy, visa fraud and alien smuggling, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

After the Barbuglis’ company was shut down, workers filed suit against the resorts for unpaid wages. A spokesperson for the Swan and Dolphin said that while the hotel was sympathetic, the workers were employed by a subcontractor and the hotels were not legally responsible for paying them. (The suits were subsequently settled with workers receiving wages and attorney costs.)

Wesley Philamar, using the address of a one-bedroom Miami apartment, received 600 fraudulent work visas that he sold to more than 500 undocumented workers who in turn used them to obtain Florida drivers’ licenses. Philamar pled guilty to conspiracy to produce identification documents without lawful authority. Carline Ceneus, owner of Carline Hot Pickers, obtained fraudulent work visas for 60 Haitians simply by convincing a farmer in Alachua County to say he needed extra help, although he did not.

The Barbuglis, Philamar and Ceneus are a new breed of labor trafficker, spawned from the very laws that were intended to protect workers from predators like them.

“There are too many visas accepted and not enough people to check up on these immigrants to make sure they are not being exploited,” said Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “The system enables labor trafficking.”

Several visa programs allow non-Americans to work temporarily in the United States. Virtually all programs have been criticized for lax oversight and abuses.

Temporary unskilled workers enter on an H-2 guest worker visa. The program is divided into H-2A visas for agricultural work and H-2B visas for other jobs, such as maid, waitress, construction worker and gardener.

“The H-2 program is widely criticized by worker advocates for lacking adequate protections for work, health and housing; legalizing the payment of sub-minimum wages, and—because workers are, for practical purposes, bound to work for one or more employers—entrapping workers at specified worksites for the duration of their stay in the United States,” stated a 145-page report published in 2010 by Verité, an Amherst, Mass.-based organization that fights trafficking.

The Government Accountability Office, investigating for Congress, reported in 2010 that eight of the ten H-2B cases it reviewed involved fraudulent documents submitted to the Department of Labor, the Citizenship and Immigration Service, and the Department of State. The employers engaged in the fraud, the GAO found, to either exploit the workers or to hire more workers.

The GAO also found that employers and recruiters used shell companies to file fraudulent documents for workers who were then leased to other companies. Five of eight cases involving fraud resulted in criminal prosecution, while the other three resulted in significant financial penalties.

A Freedom analysis of Department of Labor data found that since 1999, Florida has ranked second only to Texas in the number of foreign workers requested under the H-2B program. Among the most popular jobs for H-2B workers in Florida are housekeeper, landscape laborer, stable attendant, waitress and cook. Other professions include watch repairer, shellfish shucker, sculptor, knife grinder, escort, and chain saw operator.

Foreign workers with H-2B visas in Florida also included a mime employed at the Hilton Resort and Marina in Key West and a dancer employed at a strip club in Miami Gardens.

“H-2B visas are subject to significantly less oversight and protections than H-2A visas,” said the 2010 report from Verité. “In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor has stated that it has no authority to enforce labor law among H-2B visa holders.”

Verité said it found evidence of workers being brought in on the more lenient H-2B visas and then illegally trafficked into work in agriculture.

“In some cases workers on H-2B visas are actually sold to agricultural employers—a system reminiscent of chattel slavery,” the Verité report found.

Other visa programs, too, have been criticized for exploiting workers.

When the GAO examined the State Department’s Summer Work Travel Program, which each year issues J-1 visas to tens of thousands of foreign college students to train at amusement parks, restaurants, hotels and other businesses, it found that despite strict regulations, students were being used as cheap labor in menial jobs.

In one case, the GAO found that a program sponsored by a Florida university [not named by the GAO] ostensibly was to teach four Chinese students dairy farming. Instead, the GAO discovered, 17 Chinese students had been brought in and used for cheap labor and taught little about dairy farming.

During a four-year period, the GAO found, the State Department inspected only eight of 206 sponsors. Officials checking one company’s website to verify a worker’s employment found it was a topless bar.

Still another visa program, the H-1B program for highly technical jobs, is rarely investigated for worker abuses, the GAO reported in 2011, even though a number of employers had been accused of failing to pay required wages.

Congress is working on changes to visa laws, but those revisions have yet to be endorsed by both houses.