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Domestic files forced labor charges against Hollis pair

A Filipino woman has accused a former Queens couple of treating her like a slave for nearly two years by imprisoning her in their Hollis home where she suffered verbal abuse and was fed only table scraps, according to a federal law suit.

Elma Manliguez, 41, has alleged that her employers, Martin and Somanti Joseph, paid her the equivalent of 6 cents an hour as a domestic worker and caretaker for the couple’s three children, forced her to take meals on the kitchen floor, told her she was “stupid,” and denied her basic necessities such as sanitary napkins.

“The defendants humiliated and mistreated Ms. Manliguez,” the civil complaint states. “They did not allow her to sit on the living room couch or in any way make use of household amenities.”

The lawsuit, which was filed last year in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, was allowed to continue last week when Judge Nicholas Garaufis rejected a motion by the Josephs to have the case dismissed. Garaufis ruled that Manliguez can pursue her civil rights case based on the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery.

“These allegations describe acts of barbarism and unrelenting mental brutality reminiscent of the Gulag memorialized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his novel entitled ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,’” Garaufis wrote in his ruling.

But the Josephs say the complaint filed by law students at the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic on behalf of Manliguez is a fabrication created to allow her to make some money or stay in the country, said the couple’s lawyer, Andrew Campanelli.

“My clients are very nice people, a family,” he said. “They treated her like a member of their family. They took her Christmas shopping.”

Manliguez first started working for the Josephs in 1997 while the family was in living in Malaysia. After a year, the family decided to move back to New York, and they tricked Manliguez into coming with them, the lawsuit claims. Martin Joseph, who now works in commercial lending for Merrill Lynch, helped her arrange a tourist visa to come to the country on what she thought was a vacation, the suit says.

“Ms. Manliguez only realized that the defendants were planning to move to the U.S. when she came home one day and found a moving van at the house,” the complaint states. “She asked defendant Martin Joseph what was going on and he told her they were all moving, including her.”

Campanelli says it was Manliguez who begged the Josephs to take her with them, and they reluctantly agreed.

The family first rented an apartment in Jamaica Estates, and later moved to a house on 202nd Street in Hollis, where Manliguez’s duties expanded to include household chores like washing windows and mowing the lawn. She worked from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and was paid a total of $1,050 over two years, which was wired to her mother in the Philippines, according to her complaint.

Manliguez also claims that she was only allowed to eat the oldest leftovers in the house, and that she was denied basic toiletries and flu medication. The Josephs also tried to sever her ties with her mother by refusing to let her use the phone and by hiding letters from her mother, the complaint alleges.

Campanelli denies this, saying the Josephs bought Manliguez phone cards to call her family and quadrupled her salary from $200 a month to $200 a week.

Manliguez was kept locked in the house and was only able to escape in October 2000 when Somanti Joseph left behind a set of house keys, the complaint says.

But the Josephs accused Manliguez of leaving their 2-1/2-year-old daughter alone when she left and stealing jewelry from the house, Campanelli said. But Manliguez’s lawyers deny this.

“They wanted to make her look like she did something wrong,” said Ranjana Natarajan, a lawyer with New York University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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