Joe from San Francisco writes: My wife and I learned of a great opportunity to work in a restaurant in San Francisco. We were promised “good wages” and we were excited to move to from the Philippines and start a new life in America. When we arrived in San Francisco two years ago, we were required to and continue to work over twelve hours a day and not allowed to take breaks. We also work 6 days a week. Our employer told us that we owed a debt and he began deducting various items from our wages such as transportation, interest or fines, and charges for bad behavior. We ended up with almost no salary for the hours we worked. We were also threatened with our visas having expired and being in the United States “illegally.” My employer even took our passports away. We were threatened that if we tried to leave our employer and go back to the Philippines, something bad would happen to our family there. We confided in a friend who told us that she believed that we are victims of human trafficking. What can we do? We feel trapped and do not know if we have rights.
Thank you for your question, Joe. I am terribly sorry to hear about what happened to you and your wife. The first step is to make sure you are safe. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. You can also call a 24-hour hotline to access help and services or to report a suspected situation of human trafficking:
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center: call 1-888-373-7888 or TEXT: Be Free or 233733
- California Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST): call 1-888-KEY-2FRE(EDOM) or 1-888-539-2373
These hotlines are toll-free and operated by non-profit, non-governmental organizations. The call is anonymous and confidential.
Human trafficking can take many forms – from sex slavery to forced labor and debt bondage. Any kind of human trafficking is a violation of civil law in addition to being a criminal offense. You can bring both a federal and/or state trafficking claims against your employer.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPA) of 2003, 18 U.S.C. Section 1595 allows a private right of action for violations of 18 U.S.C . Section 1589, forced labor – obtaining labor or services by: (1) threats of serious harm or physical restraint; (2) scheme or plan causing victim to believe she’d suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or (3) abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process.
The California Trafficking Victims Protection Act, California Civil Code Section 52.5, allows a private right of action for a victim of human trafficking (forced labor or sex) as defined in the Penal Code Section 236.1. Penal Code Section 23.1 defines forced labor as labor or services that are performed or provided by a person and are obtained or maintained through force, fraud, or coercion, or equivalent conduct that would reasonably overbear the will of the person.
It appears that you and your wife were falsely promised work for good wages but in fact, were not paid even the minimum wage for San Francisco ($14.00 per hour). Your employer is engaging in a practice called “debt bondage” which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains as demanding labor as a means of repayment for real or alleged debt, yet fail to reasonably apply a victim’s wages towards the payment of the debt or limit or define the nature and length of the debtor’s services. It also appears that you and your wife are being coerced to continue working because your employer is threatening serious harm to your family back in the Philippines if you quit. Moreover, your employer took your passport away.
You can file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or consult with a trial attorney to protect your rights.
Additionally, you can bring wage and hour claims under the Labor Code such as failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, failure to pay meal and rest break premiums. You can do this by filing a wage claim with the Labor Commissioner or consulting with a trial attorney to protect your rights.
There are many other causes of action that may apply but the first step is to make sure you are safe, then contact one of the hotlines or an attorney experienced in this area of law such as the Dolan Law Firm, to help guide you through the process.