This week’s question comes from Joe in San Francisco, who writes:
Q: 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 more than 12 hours a day and not allowed to take breaks. We also work six 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.”
A: 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.
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 of 2003 allows a private right of action for violations of obtaining labor or services by: (1) threats of serious harm or physical restraint; (2) scheme or plan causing victim to believe he or she would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or (3) abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process.
The California Trafficking Victims Protection Act allows a private right of action for a victim of human trafficking (forced labor or sex), defined 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 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 toward 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 to help guide you through the process.
If you or someone you know is involved in suspected human trafficking contact: the National Human Trafficking Resource Center by phone at 1 (888) 373-7888 or text “Be Free” (233733); the California Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking by phone at 1 (888) 539-2373. These hotlines are toll-free and operated by nonprofit, non-governmental organizations. The call is anonymous and confidential.