Eleven Filipino workers are suing the owners at a French bakery in California for wage and labor violations and making them perform months of day-long manual labor not covered under their work visas, a lawsuit filed by the civil legal aid organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) revealed Thursday. Under threat of revoking their visas and sending workers back to the Philippines, the lawsuit alleged that the employers used visa sponsorships to attract workers to the United States under false pretenses, forcing them to work beyond designated role assignments at both the bakery and the owners’ personal residences.
According to the lawsuit, L’Amande French Bakery owners Analiza Moitinho de Almeida and Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida secured E-2 visas for the workers to fly from the Philippines to Southern California. The visas “allow foreign nationals to bring foreign workers to the U.S. for up to five years if they have specialized skills that are essential to the business or if they will be serving in an executive or supervisory position with the business,” the lawsuit indicated.
Once in America, the owners forced employees to work for 13 hours a day, every day of the week and “did not allow them to miss time when they were sick, not even making an exception for a worker who needed urgent and extensive medical treatment.” For six months before the bakery opened, workers alleged that they painted, cleaned, and did landscaping for the owners’ two residences, including a 17-unit rental property.
Ana made me sign a contract, stating that I owed her over $11,000, the amount to cover the cost of my travels to the U.S.
“I left family to work in the U.S. because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a better life for my family,” Romar Cunana, one of the plaintiffs and L’Amande employee for two years and four months, said Thursday. Cunana was one of three employees who spoke out against the owners at the AAAJ-sponsored press conference on Thursday.
Cunana said, “Ana[liza Almeida] made me sign a contract, stating that I owed her over $11,000, the amount to cover the cost of my travels to the U.S. The $11,000 is three times what I earn in one year in the Philippines.” Two other plaintiffs, Louis Luis and an employee who used the pseudonym “Nora,” also noted that they signed similar contracts.
Before the bakery opened, Luis said that the Almeidas paid her $370 a month to work as a “domestic servant” for six days a week. “I was treated poorly and unfairly,” Luis said. “When the bakery opened, I worked for seven days a week. … We had to lie about our hours. When the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) [a division at the California Labor Commissioner’s Office] came to visit, Ana[liza Almeida] told us to lie to the government. She threatened to cancel my visa and send me home. She terminated me a few weeks before the DLSE hearing.”
Nora, a L’Amande employee for three years and four months, said that the owners had hired her for a supervisory role and promised her a salary of $2,000 a month. Instead, she was also paid $370 a month and “worked at Ana[liza Almeida]’s house as a housekeeper. I cleaned the houses and prepared food for them…. I slept in the laundry room of her house, working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Ana did not pay us overtime.”
When the DLSE came, Almeida allegedly told Nora to lie about work conditions, threatening to go after Nora’s family with her “wealthy and powerful family in the Philippines.” According to Asian Journal which did a profile on the bakery last year, Almeida is “the daughter of Mila Santos, a realty businesswoman and Juan B. Santos, the Chairman of Social Security Commission/Social Security System and a retired CEO of Nestle Philippines.” Nora said that her family in the Philippines had to relocate after someone paid her husband a visit “because I was suing my employer in America.”
Laboni Hoq, AAAJ’s litigation director, told ThinkProgress, “Just the wage and hour claims alone are probably about $1 million. We filed 27 separate claims — some of them have punitive damages. It’s for damages and injunctive relief.”
But even if the workers win their case, it’s unclear whether they would ever see a cent. A National Employment Law Project/UCLA study found that workers in California recovered less than half of the $390 million employers withheld from employees between 2008 and 2011. The study also found that 83 percent of workers who pursued and won a wage theft claim before the DLSE still haven’t received their money, with only 15 percent ever seeing a payout in the three-year repayment window. Meanwhile, six of every ten California businesses found liable for wage theft “simply evaporate.”
Still, Hoq said that employers exploiting workers with work visas in such a manner isn’t an isolated incident, but part of a larger problem surrounding guest worker visa programs. “Hundreds of thousands of workers enter on guest worker visas, but thousands or even ten thousands of workers are regularly exploited,” Hoq said. Just last month, a federal jury awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five Indian guest workers who were exploited in a similar labor trafficking scheme by a Gulf Coast marine services company.