Friday, November 09, 2007

Little known heroes and great justice system

I have been a critic of the elitist nature of American democracy and of US frenetic foreign policy as a number of the commentaries in this site will show.

But, I have also been all praise to the American jury system. In one blog exchange I have posted the following:
America is great because Americans of today are fundamentally good and just. There’s a lot more to be desired but America has done away with slavery as an economic system, it is seriously fighting the last remnants of the scourge of racism, and it is more and more looking at the world as one large community, to cite some quite laudable signs of progress.

Moreover, things being equal, the justice system in America is something that presents itself as a model that deserves the admiration of the whole world. I guess this is because the “jury system,” the one democratic institution that America has chosen to preserve is well at work. Citizen jurors as you know represent a cross-section of the community initially chosen at random; once empanelled, they are empowered to hold to account aberrant members for acts or behavior inimical to the community. More often than not, the rich, the famous and the powerful could not escape the judgment of their peers. Enron’s Ken Lay, homemaking diva Martha Stewart, Congressman and “Top Gun” hero Duke Cunningham and well-connected White House adviser Scooter Libby are recent examples. Yet imperfect, but the jury system is as close as it gets to the very rudiments of direct democracy. It is “people power” in a microcosm. Unfortunately, the system is one of those democratic essentials that the Americans have decided to deny to the Filipinos.
There’s another true and close to life reason for my optimistic outlook. Here’s why.

Last year, nine Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) were brought into South Dakota, United States from the Philippines to work in a hotel under what appeared to be a fair and attractive arrangement for them: minimum wage for 40 hours of work per week.

The workers’ nightmare has begun right upon arrival. Their visas and passports were confiscated by their employers. No sooner, they were made to sign overstated and escalating debt obligations, and were held to work from early morning to midnight. Their employers would threat them with violence during late-hour meetings, denying them needed rest and sleep, and regularly admonished them about their debts and work performance.

Some were made to work as many as 160 hours in a week but were paid almost nil. The payroll modus operandi was simple: the victims were handed paychecks but only for endorsement because immediately the checks would be taken back by the employers and deposited into the hotel bank account.

One had been relieved from her plight by an uncle who is a doctor in the area, and she eventually returned to the Philippines before her visa expired. In Manila, concerned about the continuing abuse and worsening condition of her co-workers left behind in the US, she lost no time to initiate a complaint (in April 2006) before the local authorities and the US embassy. In a text message to a US Embassy representative, she has written “What I want here is justice, and I believe this will served as eye opener and lesson for all of us.”

On May 28, 2006, she sent a follow-up letter to the US Embassy in the Philippines, part of which reads:
. . . just to inform you that last April 18, 2006, Mr. Robert John Farrel presented himself at the embassy there together with the 9 Filipinos (with) . . . fraudulent documents, such as fake pay slips and pay checks, and these people are being intimidated and harassed, they were forced to lie . . .

Now these 9 Filipinos . . . left for US last April 28, 2006, meaning they were granted visas. These people are now seeking help and assistance here to help them in their worsening situation there in Oacoma, South Dakota.

In fact, one of those 9 Filipinos who just arrived last May 27, 2006, had tried her best to make her way out of that place, and lucky enough she was allowed because she told them that she needs to go home to attend to her mother’s serious ailments, but the truth of it is that she can no longer stay there because of the TRAUMA, HARD LABOR and EXPLOITATION, and most especially that they are now in DEBT BONDAGE with the FARRELLS. She is MS.GINA AGULTO . . . She decided to go home because like me she wants justice. . .

Filipino people are coming to America hoping for a better life, and it is a terrible tragedy to find ourselves victims of human trafficking . . .

This call is not just for me or for ourselves but also for potential victims . . . I know there are hundreds of people out there seeking for help and assistance. I FIGHT NOT ONLY FOR MYSELF BUT FOR ALL THE VICTIMS, BECAUSE WE CANNOT (OTHERWISE) FULLY EMBRACE OUR OWN DIGNITY AS HUMAN BEINGS.
On May 30, 2006, Gina Agulto from the Philippines wrote the doctor in South Dakota and her own plea was similarly afflictive:
Just like any other Overseas Contract Workers, we only dreamt of working hard to earn good money and save for our family’s future. We did work hard, as hard as we could and bore all the hardships we went through but good money never came. What we actually got ourselves into is DEBT BONDAGE which in the first place is very inhuman. If I am going to compute, they even owe me money with all the payments I made through my pay checks which they claimed and asked me to endorse. They owe me and all of us Filipinos for all the things they put us through.

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 treat us. I’d rather go home and start all over again.

But again, 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.

I am placing all my trust and confidence in the justice system of the Philippines and of the United States of America.
The doctor had 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.

In July 2006 the investigation began to take shape even as some of the workers escaped from their employers, and thereafter were provided assistance by the same doctor and the local law enforcement. From this point, several US agencies have cooperated to develop the case: the U.S. Department of Labor, the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, the Chamberlain (South Dakota) Police Department, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The joint efforts have paid off. The employers, Robert John Farrell and his wife, Angelita Magat Farrell, both of Oacoma, South Dakota who own and operate the Comfort Inn & Suites hotel in Oacoma, have been charged in court.

Justice was swift: on November 8, 2007, after five days of trial the jury promptly deliberated on the case and returned guilty verdicts against the Farrells for conspiracy to commit peonage, peonage, document servitude, visa fraud, and making false statements to federal agents. Both face imprisonment of up to 125 years.

I’m quite familiar with the case. The principal complainant, Maria Corazon Margallo, is my niece and the South Dakota doctor, Lucio Margallo II, is my brother.


Anonymous Farah said...

No person should have to suffer like those people suffered in South Dakota. Debt Bondage is a serious crime! It is inhumane to take away the right to come to America and work fairly under the laws of our country. These people came here to provide money for their families only to get their dreams shattered and their rights taken away. It is unfortunate that the Farrell's thought that they could get away with these acts. Justice was served, unfortunately their family has to suffer.

November 10, 2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger stuart-santiago said...

wow. i thought this was happening lang in the middle east and hongkong, this ill treatment of our ofws. i had no idea it could happen too in america. you're right, buti na lang they have a justice system that responds to the plight of the downtrodden. wish we could say the same of our own country.

November 13, 2007 1:54 AM  
Blogger AdB said...

Fantastic! Didn't know this sort of thing also happens in the US.

Abe, if your niece and brother hadn't been there, wonder if the bad treatment of the OFWs would have gone unnoticed?

November 13, 2007 9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

happy to say that there are people out there have a good heart and strenght to fight this kind of injustice more power

November 25, 2007 10:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Line Zero
Line one b
Line a

January 18, 2008 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Star-santiago makes a good point.

but adb confuses me.

January 18, 2008 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess this is not an isolated case. There may be others who are going through similar situation in US. I know someone who escaped here abusive employer in South Dakote in 2002. She was recruited by a Filipino-American lady to work in a hotel also in SD. The employer didn't pay her and coerced her to work beyond eotk hours. I'm not so sure if the recruiter was the same Fil_Am lady named Angelita Farrell.

February 23, 2008 7:13 PM  

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