Star One Bought Down To Earth
Star One Bought Down To Earth
Thirteen Filipinos say the staffing agency that brought them to the United States forced them to work for virtually nothing under constant threat of deportation. After deducting for "severely overcrowded" housing and expenses, one worker says Star One Staffing paid her $1.50 for a month's work - and adds that she was reprimanded for eating noodles without permission.
Star One created an atmosphere of constant intimidation, telling them they'd be arrested if they left without permission, according to the federal complaint. Star One Staffing and five of its defendant officers treated them like indentured servants after they stuffed them into crowded dorms in Miami and New York City, the workers say. They claim that Star One supervisors routinely threatened have the immigrants' visas revoked if they left the dorms without permission. Star One and its staff "also held critical immigration documents of some plaintiffs, deliberately increasing their sense of powerlessness to leave," according to the 72-page complaint. The workers say Star Ones president Mary Jane Hague recruited 10 of them from their homes in the Philippines in the fall of 2006, promising them jobs at Miami-area country clubs.Hague's husband at the time, Andrew Hague, a judge in Florida's 11th Circuit Court, went along on the recruiting trips and lent a sense of legitimacy to Star One's operation, the complaint states.
Andrew Hague is not named as a defendant. But the complaint states that "Defendants [Mary Jane] Hague, R[uth] Carruthers, [Roberto] Villanueva, and [Lina] Fernandez, along with Judge Andrew Hague, traveled to the Philippines to secure workers for Star One."
The workers say that after arriving in America under Star One's wing, they found the agency's promises to pay them a fair wage and expedite their U.S. permanent resident status were empty.
They say Star One herded them into crowded homes "in which up to 40 workers resided," in one case, with almost 20 workers sleeping in a single room.
Plaintiff Arries Cayula, who worked for Star One in New York, says Star One housed him at the Norwick Motel in Oyster Bay for weeks, in a room with 15 others.
The workers - men and women - labored long hours in area country clubs, often for less than minimum wage, according to the complaint. Star One's Miami supervisors allegedly exerted dominion over their workers' every move.
"Before being permitted to leave Star One housing, plaintiffs were required to tell an agent of Star One where they were going and how to reach them," the complaint states.
When one worker returned to Star One housing later than expected, the agency's human resources coordinator, Ted Ravelo, "issued a memo saying he had called the police to find them and recommending to Star One that they be forced to return to the Philippines," according to the complaint.
Ravelo allegedly wrote in the memo that "their behavior should be treated with 'summary severity.'" Ravelo, however, is not named as a defendant.
Plaintiff Rezza Real claims Star One supervisor Lina Fernandez reprimanded her for eating a package of microwaved noodles without permission.
Real says she decided to "escape" when she found that after Star One had finished deducting her living costs, "her paycheck for the prior month totaled approximately $1.50 despite [her] working over 40 hours each week."
When one worker "escaped," Star One supervisors Roberto Villanueva and Lina Fernandez held a meeting with the rest to warn them that if they left Star One's housing they would be reported to immigration authorities, the complaints states. The workers say they were told that leaving Star One would have dire consequences for their future in America.
They claim that Star One transferred several of them to New York, threatening that if they didn't go, their visas would be revoked.
Mary Hague told Courthouse News in a telephone interview that she had not been served, and could not respond to the allegations before reading the complaint.
Her company has been sued in Federal Court at least three times in the past 10 years, accused of failing to pay overtime wages, court records show.
In January, another group of Filipinos recruited by Star One filed a federal complaint in Arkansas alleging that Star One's deduction of housing and living costs from their paycheck left them either indebted to the agency or with virtually no cash.
In that case, plaintiff Morena Roco claimed she worked more than 60 hours over a 10-day span in the summer of 2009, and after Star One's deductions, she netted less than $50 from it.
The Arkansas plaintiffs' allegations, like those in the Florida case, are predicated on a New York law that prohibits an employer from deducting food or lodging costs from a worker's pay.
Federal labor laws do not prohibit payment of wages in food or housing, but the State of New York's labor law differs.
Most of the Filipino workers in both the Florida and Arkansas cases worked for Star One in New York state at some point, giving them protection under Section 193 of the state's labor law, which essentially limits paycheck deductions to insurance premiums, pension or health benefits, and labor union dues.
In 2007, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought civil charges against Hague and Star One on behalf of 94 Filipino workers, alleging that Star One had violated these paycheck deduction limitations. That case ended with a $113,000 settlement, the judge's final order shows.
While previous cases against Star One included accusations of minimum wage violations and illegal paycheck deductions, the human rights abuses alleged in the Florida complaint set it apart.
The plaintiffs seek damages for human trafficking, forced labor, fraud, unjust enrichment, emotional distress, racketeering, wire fraud, mail fraud, immigration document fraud, and labor law violations. They are represented by Gregory Schell with Florida Legal Services of Lake Worth.