|By Willoughby Mariano, The Orlando
Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
February 4, 2010 --Foreign workers are suing two major Orlando-area resorts, saying they were never paid for a month's worth of cleaning rooms and washing laundry after their labor contractor closed during a sweeping international visa fraud investigation.
Workers were placed at several area hotels, including Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort and the Westin Imagine, by now-shuttered labor contractor Very Reliable Services, which is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Labor, and the Brazilian government.
VR Services has failed to pay the worker's wages, so the resorts should, according to two separate suits filed against the resorts in U.S. District Court in Orlando.
Workers were promised up to $7.50 an hour, and are owed for about 160 hours of work each, according to the complaint.
Hotels increasingly use subcontractors to dodge responsibility if workers are mistreated, and they need to be held accountable, said Greg Schell, the attorney for workers in both suits.
"These are high-end hotels, luxury hotels," he said. "I think guests would be shocked [that workers weren't paid]."
A spokeswoman for the Swan and Dolphin said that the workers were employed by a subcontractor, and the hotels are not legally responsible for paying them.
"The hotel is obviously sympathetic to them, but it is true they're not employees of the hotel," said Treva Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Swan and Dolphin.
Hotel officials are cooperating with federal authorities, she said.
A spokesman for the Westin did not respond to requests for comment.
VR Services workers also held positions at The Hilton Walt Disney World Resort; The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek; The Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport; Marriott SpringHill Suites at SeaWorld; and Sheraton Safari Hotel and Suites.
Schell said plans to file suit against other Orlando hotels who used VR Services.
During the past two decades, Schell, an attorney with Florida Legal Services in Lake Worth, has worked on similar suits involving farm laborers unpaid by subcontractors.
VR Services and other related, Orlando-area companies were targeted in "Operation Anarchy," a Brazilian visa fraud sweep that netted arrests of 13 people, including three U.S. citizens, Brazilian investigators said.
Job brokers used false information to obtain visas to bring workers to the United States, and then charged hopeful workers in Brazil, Russia, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Romania and the United Arab Emirates up to $15,000 to for what they said were legal, temporary positions, according to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil. The scheme generated $52 million.
VR closed its doors in December after its Universal Boulevard offices were searched by federal agents. An attorney for two corporate directors of VR and related companies has said his clients want to pay their employees, but their assets were seized.
The U.S. departments of Labor and Homeland Security declined to provide details of their investigations. There have been no Operation Anarchy arrests in the U.S., according to Brazilian authorities.
All interviewed workers said they were owed weeks of wages.
The H-2B visa program is popular with employers, but critics complain it leaves workers vulnerable to abuse. Third-party subcontractors, not hotels, are increasingly bringing in the workers, allowing hotels to argue they are not liable if the foreign workers are mistreated.
Willoughby Mariano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5171.
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