By Cynthia De Castro/Asianjournal.com
LOS ANGELES — An American motel owner in Oacama, South Dakota and his Filipina wife were sentenced on Feb. 22 for forcing almost a dozen Filipino OFWs into servitude and peonage.
US District Judge Charles Kornmann sentenced Robert John Farrell (4 years and 2 months in Federal prison) and his wife, Angelita Magat Farrell (3 years) after they were found guilty by a federal jury on Nov 2007. They were convicted with nine counts each of conspiracy to commit peonage, 4 counts of peonage, document servitude, visa fraud, and two counts of making false statements to federal agents.
A US Department of Labor investigator told the jury that he discovered records that indicated one Filipino worker worked as many as 160 hours in a week at the hotel. When not at the hotel, as many as nine Filipino workers were housed in a nearby two-bedroom apartment rented by the Farrells.
According to testimony, the Farrells paid the victims almost nothing. To make payroll records look legitimate, the Farrells handed workers paychecks for them to endorse but immediately took the checks back and deposited them into their own hotel bank account.
In their defense motion, it was stated that the case started from a request from Angelita Magat Farrell’s family members and friends in the Philippines to help them get US work visas. The couple agreed to help, and “were by no means attempting to set up some elaborate scheme to take advantage of the economically depressed Filipino workers,” the motion states. It was also stated that the terms of employment were fairly negotiated and that half the workers were “happy with their experience”.
However, the workers’ testimonies were in direct contrast to the Farrell’s. In an internet blog, the principal complainant, Maria Corazon Margallo, recalled the story of their plight.
She reported that their nightmare began right upon arrival. Their visas and passports were confi scated by their employers. They were made to sign overstated and escalating debt obligations, and were held to work from early morning to midnight. Their employers would threaten them with violence during late-hour meetings, denying them needed rest and sleep, and regularly admonished them about their debts and work performance.
Fortunately, Margallo has an uncle, Lucio Margallo II, who is a doctor living near the area. With his help, she was able to leave the Farrells and go back home to the Philippines. To help the workers who were left in Oacoma, Margallo lost no time to initiate a complaint in April 2006 before the local authorities and the US embassy. The doctor consulted a local judge who in turn recommended that the matter be referred to the State Department of Labor, the State Attorney and the Philippine Consulate in Chicago.
Another worker, Gina Agulto was able to convince the Farrells that she had to go home because her mother was seriously ill. When she got back to the Philippines, Agulto also wrote Dr. Margallo and asked him to help the Filipino workers left in Dakota.
“I left a good and stable job, left my husband and 3 kids to sacrifice with a promise of wonderful things for us. The separation even instilled a negative effect on my children. It gives me a very sad and heavy heart that I had to go home and have accomplished nothing at all. But I cannot furthermore stay and work for them and slowly lose my self-respect and dignity with the way they treated us,”Agulto wrote. “I’d rather go home and start all over again. But, I am not going to allow them to get away with all these illegal acts. I want them to realize their unjust ways and be penalized. Please assist our co-Filipinos who are still there right now. They are helpless and have no one to turn to but you.”
Several of the workers were able to escape from the Farrells in July 2006. They asked help from the same doctor and they called Lyman County State’s Attorney Ann Arnoldy, who put them in contact with Chamberlain Chief of Police Joseph C. Hutmacher. From this point, several US agencies cooperated to develop the case: the US Department of Labor, the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the Chamberlain (South Dakota) Police Department, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Attaché at the US Embassy in Manila, Philippines, and the Department of Homeland Security.