GULFPORT, Miss. — A group of workers who say they were trafficked into forced labor have won a suit against their employer, Louisiana-based Royal Hospitality Services LLC.
The suit involved 38 people who had asked for class-action status when they filed in 2011, but U.S. District Court Judge Sul Ozerden considered each case separately. Ozerden issued default judgments in 18 cases in December, and on June 6 issued similar judgments on the 20 remaining cases. The individual payments fall between $67,000 and $77,999, with a total of more than $1 million.
While the settlement is unusually large, it's nearly certain not to put a dent in the large and lucrative business of human trafficking.
"The issue is, there's so many different staffing agencies that are basically doing the same exact thing that this company did," Giselle Rodriguez, state outreach coordinator at the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, told the Louisiana Record. "A lot of companies have gotten away with a slap on the wrist... . We unfortunately know that a lot of corporations in our country depend on these types of staffing agencies that may be infiltrated by traffickers."
The workers involved in this case mostly hailed from the Philippines. They were brought into the country on temporary visas that their employer required them to pay for, at a cost of between $5,000 and $8,000; the workers say they had been told the employer would cover that cost. Once here, their visas and passports were withheld, and they were forced to clean up to 18 hotel rooms per day at a wage of $4.25 per room. They had been told they would work as waiters and be paid $7.25 per hour. Of the 38 people involved in the suit at the time it was filed in 2011, 22 were living in Biloxi, Mississippi; nine were in Louisiana, and the rest were spread out across other states.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez says, many people see "human trafficking" as synonymous with forced sexual exploitation. That narrow public understanding means the people forced into labor are often ignored.
"From the 20.9 million victims of trafficking there are estimated to be globally, we know that 68 percent of them are victims of forced labor, but you rarely hear about that," Rodriguez said.
Workers like the 38 involved in the suit against Royal Hospitality face an uphill battle due to the fact that many people don't even realize workers in domestic fields may potentially be forced into their jobs.
"When you look at the issue of human trafficking, it includes domestic servitude, labor trafficking and sex trafficking; and the thing is, globally, nationally, in the Southeastern portion of the U.S., we are going to see more of this type of (forced labor) trafficking than anything else due to the fact that many of us depend on this type of cheap labor," Rodriguez said.
The default judgments came after Royal Hospitality's lawyer stepped down, saying the company hadn't paid its legal fees. Ozerden gave the company until June 20, 2014 to hire a new attorney, but the company failed to meet that deadline.