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Immigration Law

Lawsuit in Los Angeles Alleges Forced Labor, Wage Theft, Visa Fraud

"Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA) and Latham & Watkins LLP filed suit on behalf of 11 Filipino workers at L’Amande French Bakery, who were fraudulently lured by their employer to the United States on E-2 visas and then subjected to exploitative working conditions including forced labor, severe wage theft, immigration-related retaliation, and national origin discrimination.  L’Amande is a popular bakery in the Los Angeles-area with stores in Beverly Hills and Torrance.  The owners of L’Amande are Ana Moitinho de Almeida, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful government official in the Philippines, and her husband Goncalo.

The E-2 visa provides temporary work authorization for immigrants with specialized or supervisory skills who are employed by a foreign national who has invested a substantial amount of capital in a U.S.-based business. Like other temporary (or guest) worker visas, E-2 visa holders are dependent on their employers for legal status, with few – and in this case no – protections against employer exploitation and retaliation for asserting workplace rights. In the lawsuit filed yesterday, the workers were recruited under false pretenses for their specialized pastry chef skills, but were forced to do menial labor once they arrived in the United States.

“The E-2 visa is especially ripe for abuse and employer misuse, and is overdue for reform,” said Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director at Advancing Justice – LA. “By offering a largely unregulated avenue for wealthy foreign nationals to get a competitive advantage in the U.S. marketplace, the E-2 visa allows unscrupulous foreign investors to bring in immigrant workers who can be forced to accept abusive working conditions or risk deportation and retaliation in their home country. That is what our clients have been facing, but they are bravely stepping forward to shine a light on the significant gaps in our nation’s guest worker laws, that result in inhumane treatment of workers.”

The Almeidas, used threats of debt, deportation, and financial ruin in the Philippines to maintain their economic exploitation of the workers while paying legally mandated wages to local workers. After the workers arrived in the United States, the Almeidas threatened them with a significant debt of $11,000 each unless they agreed to work under these illegal conditions for at least three years.  After an investigation by the California Labor Commissioner's Office revealed egregious wage and hour abuses, including 14-hour work days for more than three consecutive months and wages of less than $3 per hour, the Almeidas retaliated against the workers when they refused to lie about their working conditions. As the lawsuit details, half of the workers were fired after they cooperated in the labor investigation. Since the E-2 visa is bound to the employer, the termination has left the workers without a livelihood. Yet, they fear returning to the Philippines because of what the politically powerful Almeida family will do to them there.

“When Ana promised me $2,000 a month to work at her bakery in the United States, I jumped at the chance to provide a better future for my sons than I had,” said Romar Cunanan, one of the Filipino workers recruited to work at the bakery. “I had no idea that I would be forced to work for 12 hours a day for five weeks straight or that I would be forced to act as a general servant for the Almeidas. When I stood up for my rights and refused to lie to the labor investigator about the conditions I was working in, Ana threatened to sue me and ruin my life and that of my family in the Philippines. Now that she has terminated me, I worry she will make good on her threats, and I worry for my own safety and that of my family if I return to the Philippines. But I feel I have to fight back, because my family is counting on me.”

The lawsuit alleges claims for labor exploitation, discrimination, unfair immigration-related practices, trafficking, and racketeering based on visa fraud, retaliation, and seeks to enjoin ongoing unfair practices. Some of the wage and hour claims alone for the 11 workers amount to more than $700,000, and we will pursue additional damages and penalties based on the many legal claims.

“What is particularly egregious about what the Almeidas did here is that they engaged in a scheme to defraud the U.S. government and the workers, lying about the workers’ wages and conditions,” said Philip Wang, one of the attorneys for the workers at Latham & Watkins LLP. “It wasn’t until the workers arrived in the U.S. that they were threatened with substantial debt unless they kept working. No one should be allowed to profit in this way, especially when it is on the backs of workers who are alone and new to the U.S., and have poor English skills and limited legal recourse.”

Advancing Justice – LA is also seeking immediate immigration relief for the workers. “As victims of labor trafficking, coercive labor practices, and potential persecution if they return to the Philippines, the bakery workers deserve the protection of our laws,” explained John Trang, staff attorney at Advancing Justice – LA. “The workers deserve to stay in the U.S. where they can continue to contribute to the American economy outside of the Almeidas’ control.”

The filed complaint can be found here." - Advancing Justice - LA, Mar. 19, 2015.

Beverly Hills bakery workers say they were paid as little as $2 an hour - L.A. Times, Mar. 19, 2015.