Forced labor uncovered at New York waterfront wedding hall, authorities say

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 December 2017 16:50 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A New York Police Department officer (L) walks past pedestrians in the Times Square area of New York, April 15, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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"This case is an example of ruthless labor trafficking hiding in plain sight"

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. authorities have accused two men in New York of recruiting immigrants from the Philippines to work for little or no pay at an historic catering hall in a case of human trafficking happening "in plain sight".

The pair lured workers with promises of good jobs and paid money into their bank accounts but took it back and threatened to report them if they complained, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said in a statement.

Many of the workers were living with expired visas in the basement of the hall's owner, who has since filed for bankruptcy and closed the troubled business, ICE said.

"This case is an example of ruthless labor trafficking hiding in plain sight," said Angel Melendez, ICE special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York, in a statement.

"These individuals allegedly committed visa fraud while forcing people to work in their catering hall under horrible conditions, in what seemed to be an inescapable situation."

Nearly 25 million people around the world are trapped in forced labor, according to an estimate by the International Labour Organization and human rights group Walk Free Foundation.

The two men, Ralph Colamussi of New York and Roberto Villanueva of the Philippines, are accused of forcing immigrants to work at the Thatched Cottage in Centerport, New York, about 40 miles (65 km) east of New York City.

The two men recruited more than two dozen workers in the Philippines between 2008 and 2013, promising positions as waiters, cooks and other jobs, and made them pay upfront fees, which are illegal, ICE said.

When they arrived in the United States, the workers found themselves in lesser jobs getting low or no wages, the indictment said.

They were threatened with deportation or violence to themselves or their families back home if they told anyone, it said.

Colamussi, who owned the Thatched Cottage, asked one worker to help him flood and burn it down, according to the indictment.

When the worker refused and fled, Colamussi threatened to find him and kill him, it said.

Colamussi filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and closed the picturesque waterfront venue, which dated back to 1915.

He doused himself with gasoline in what officials said was a suicide attempt in 2014 the day before the bankrupt property was to be sold at auction, according to local media. He planned to set himself and his van on fire but was overcome by fumes and lost consciousness, officials told the Newsday newspaper.

Colamussi and Villanueva face federal charges of conspiring to engage in forced labor of immigrants, visa fraud and other counts.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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