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MANILA, Philippines – A Filipina victim of human trafficking filed a lawsuit against her employers for allegedly forcing her into “involuntary servitude for almost 3 years,” while suffering from “extreme verbal abuse” and overwork.
According to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles and Jenner & Block LLP, who filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of the victim, Edelynne Bergado was lured by Marlon and Nelle-Ann Velonza to the United States with promises of a well-paying job and a green card.
But instead, the Velonzas allegedly confiscated her passport and forced Bergado to "work over 14 hours a day and 7days a week, for virtually no pay, for almost 3 years.”
Abuse and overwork
Bergado also claimed to have suffered from “extreme verbal abuse” and that she was forbidden from leaving her employers’ apartment without supervision, prohibited from speaking to anyone outside, and was monitored through security cameras when left alone.
“Edelynne was treated like a slave,” said Laboni Hoq, Advancing Justice-LA’s Director of Impact Litigation. “The defendants in this case knowingly benefited from human trafficking. It is illegal to lure someone into the country, keep them effectively imprisoned, and make them work for pennies an hour.”
Bergado claimed that she had to cook and clean for the couple, their two children, and Mrs. Velonza’s brother, who lives with his family in an adjacent apartment.
Bergado also worked for a skin bleaching and facial business that Mrs. Velonza runs out of their apartment, where she "was regularly used as a guinea pig to test the skincare products made out of household cleaning products.”
According to her complaint, Bergado worked at a cosmetics factory operated by relatives of the Velonzas in Bani, Pangasinan. The couple asked her to accompany and care for Mr. Velonza’s elderly mother on a trip to the United States.
Bergado agreed and signed the contract to be the elderly’s caregiver for the duration of her trip, after being promised a Php 9,000 (177USD) salary and school tuition for her children. They also promised to help her obtain a green card, if she ended up working for them in the United States for at least a year.
Despite wanting to go home, the Velonzas allegedly refused to let Bergado return to the Philippines even after Mr. Velonza’s mother was already sent home.
Through intimidation and confiscation of belongings, Bergado said she felt compelled to continue working for them despite the inhumane conditions. In January 2017, Bergado escaped her traffickers when she was rescued by the police.
Edelynne Bergado is suing the defendants for violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the California Labor Code, and other violations of the law.
“We have seen that many Filipinos in the United States endure human trafficking, deceptive recruitment practices, and other forms of labor exploitation,” said Christopher Lapinig, Registered Legal Services Attorney at Advancing Justice-LA. “It is encouraging when, after escaping their traffickers, survivors like Edelynne stand up and seek justice. We hope that Edelynne’s bravery inspires other survivors to do the same.”
Rappler tried to reach out to Marlon and Nelle-Ann Velonza on Facebook for a statement and have yet to receive a response. – Rappler.com
Don Kevin Hapal is Rappler’s Head of Data and Innovation. He started at Rappler as a digital communications specialist, then went on to lead Rappler’s Balikbayan section for overseas Filipinos. He was introduced to data journalism while writing and researching about social media, disinformation, and propaganda.