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Lawyer says ‘modern-day slavery’ is happening in Virginia

Posted at 12:01 AM, Nov 20, 2012
and last updated 2012-11-20 06:48:44-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - In the heart of Richmond's Southside, you'll find a community saturated with Latino businesses.

It bustles with community businesses that fulfill the needs of a growing population.

"We are Dominican.  We know how to work the hair.  We know how to treat the people,” said Jose Almonte, co-owner of J&J beauty salon.

Some of the residents like, Jose Almonte, are living the American dream.  Almonte is Dominican and the co-owner of J&J beauty salon.

Jose came to the U.S. in 1997. He and his wife, Judy, moved from the Bronx, New York to open this full service beauty shop in 2005.

"I was working for several people in the beginning, and then finally began opening my own business,” said Almonte. It’s turned into a thriving one along the Hull street corridor.

"I'm legal.  So, that's the difference,” said Almonte.

But for some Latinos that are also trying to live the American dream, they’ve had nothing but a nightmare.

 "They don't want to face any authority because they're afraid,’ said local contractor Enis Guille, who is blowing the whistle on what he calls modern-day slavery.

“They get people from everywhere...anywhere they want to.  Mainly Spanish, because they know they don't have any legal papers or anything,” said Guillen, of E&G contractors.

He is talking about undocumented workers.

"They work between 40 and 60 hours...sometimes they work Saturday and Sunday....7 days a week.  Just to get it done,” said Guillen.

But in some cases, despite their hard work, Latinos didn't get a dime, said Guillen.

People come to him every single day he says, saying that they are owed money.

“What can you do?!” said Guillen.

Miriam Bravo is laborer owed money.  She spoke to CBS 6 through an interpreter.

Translator:  "First, she was mad. After that, she says she wants to do something to get the money."

The mother says she endured the sweltering summer heat to help renovate some Jackson Ward apartments.

Translator:  "She was painting on a big ladder, tall ladders, scraping windows...painting windows.  The sun was right to her face.  She used a bandanna to cover her face.  Sweating."

Doing a dangerous job, Miriam says, to support her family.

Translator:  "She said it's true, but she had to do it.  She had to work."

Miriam claims a local contractor owes her $1100.   

And she's not alone.  Johnnie Perez is just as frustrated.  He also spoke to CBS 6 through an interpreter.

Translator:  "He feels very bad and mad at the same time because he says they take advantage of the laborers."

Perez says it's tough to make ends meet.

Translator:  "It's very difficult because sometime he can't bring food to the house.  Sometime, they turn the power off, phone off.  And when they don't have any money, anything can happen."

 Johnnie says he's out of $1800 dollars, and doesn't plan to let the contractor off the hook.

Translator:  "He's going to try to do as much as he order to get it...because he needs it."

"Some of the stories and some of the situations that you hear are just unbelievable,” said Michel Zajur, President, of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"They have a wonderful work ethic and a lot of what the economic development that has taken place and the reason why so many Hispanics are here in the United States today is because businesses wanted them,” said Zajur.

As the Latino population grows, Zajur says so does the number of complaints over unpaid wages.

 "We cannot handle the demand that comes in here,” he said.

 In 2004, Zajur says his agency started a legal clinic to fight for undocumented workers. A team of lawyers from six Richmond law firms volunteered to help.

"Even the folks who were here legally didn't understand that they had rights.  And that, they would be protected under the law,” said W. Alexander Burnett, with the Williams Mullen law firm.

Alexander Burnett says William Mullens was the first law firm to sign on.

"There were a couple of cases that I worked on where employers were telling employees that if they went to seek help from the legal system that they might put their immigration status at risk.  They were making all kinds of threats,” said Burnett.

He said he thinks it could be called modern-day slavery.

"I don't know what else you call it.  I think in effect that’s what it was.  Employers started to recognize that they could take advantage of folks and essentially get free labor," said Burnett.

According to Burnett, the recession caused the construction industry to hit rock bottom.  As a result, contractors paid their owners and suppliers first, and then paid their employees last; but not in every case.

“A lot of times, the reason some of the contractors may not be paying is because they're going out of business,” said Burnett. 

Burnett said that from 2004 until 2007, $800,000 dollar in judgments were placed against contractors in Richmond and surrounding counties, for unpaid wages.  He added that more than half of that money has been collected, and paid to both legal and illegal workers.

But as the number of unpaid wage claims expanded out to other law firms, Burnett admitted, they didn’t have a central source to tally the recoveries.

"We are successful.  But with any case, you can't squeeze blood out of a turnip,” said Burnett.

And while many people are working on behalf of the Latino community to tackle this problem, Bravo and Perez are still waiting for their money.

Translator:  "They always think the person that they're working for is honest, and they think that they're going to get paid one way or another,” said Bravo.

Translator:  "I'm going to leave everything in God's hands,” said Perez.