11 workers in LA sue scion of Filipino official for forced labor
SAN FRANCISCO — On the phone, the woman was so scared for herself and her family in the Philippines, she would only go by the name “Nora.”
In 2011, she was working at the Le Coeur de France bakery in Manila when she was approached by the former owner, Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, who had moved to the U.S.
Almeida, the daughter of Philippine Social Security chair Juan B. Santos, was starting a new bakery in Beverly Hills and Torrance, California —L’Amande Bakery–and asked Nora to come work for her.
Nora said Ana offered $2,000 and an E2 visa. It’s a temporary visa, good for five years for skilled workers to America. Ana took care of everything for Nora and ten others. She is alleged to have made up some things in the paperwork to get the visas.
An E-2 visa is for skilled workers. But when Nora and the others arrived, they were put to work as household domestics, doing dishes, cleaning, cooking and yard work for Almeida.
On top of that, they did other manual labor like cleaning of Almeida’s rental properties.
Oh, and the pay? Not $2,000 a month.
Try $360 a month. About the same amount that the workers got if they stayed put in their old jobs in Manila. But this was Los Angeles not Metro Manila.
Never mind. They stayed together in the Almeida’s laundry room, sleeping on the floor. Did they even have a banig?
“Nora” began crying as I talked to her as she recounted her tale.
I asked her if she felt like a “slave”?
“Opo,” she said. She wasn’t allowed to leave, and when she finally brought up the pay discrepancy Almeida threatened her. She said she and the others were told they would have to repay an $11,000 debt for being brought to America.
Debt of $11,000? That’s not slavery. That sounds more like “indentured servitude.”
Nora, 47, felt trapped. Like many of the others, she had had a working relationship with Ana and had known her for a dozen years or more. They trusted her on the offer to come to America. They didn’t think it was a scheme for cheap labor.
For Nora, it was a dream opportunity—a way to send dollars back to the peso world, to help her family mired in poverty.
But she didn’t know anything about the paperwork, about the visa. Ana had taken care of all that. And now she felt trapped.
And when the suggestion came up to leave, Ana threatened them.
“I’m very afraid for my family,” Nora said. She said she feared Ana wouldn’t hesitate to use any connections back home. Already there have been knocks on some of doors of family members, she said. “I regret that I joined Ana here,” Nora said tearfully. “If I stayed, I would not have endangered my family.”
Nora was so fearful not to use her name. But at least she talked to me.
Two others did as well. But they had a sense of justice that allowed them a bit more courage.
They’re using their real names.
Louise Luis, 40, and left her partner and son Mat in Quezon City when Ana offered her a job doing logistics for the new bakery in America. She sent home most of her money to the Philippines to provide a better life for her son.
But she paid a price. She was overworked, and underpaid. And when she confronted Ana about her treatment, Louise said Ana scolded her like she was an ungrateful infant.
“I thought of leaving a lot of times,” Louise told me. But Ana being from a prominent family was intimidating to her. “I know Ana is wealthy and very powerful in the Philippines. Her father is wealthy and powerful and influential…And if you know the Philippines…when you’re wealthy and you know some people, you have bodyguards. You can do things to people who don’t have money.”
That was the peso mentality that ruled and dominated the Filipino workers brought over by Analiza Moitinho de Almeida. Ana’s position as a member of the Filipino elite, the daughter of the former chair of Nestle Philippines, and the current chair of the Social Security system in the Philippines, had as much to do with her ability to rule over the workers as anything else. Even in America.
Another worker. Romar Cunanan, 33, felt similarly. He said the pressure of having an $11,000 payment hanging over his head, as well as the fear of harm to his family in the Philippines was too much to bear.
But he also felt strange working for Almeida once the bakery opened.
This wasn’t a bakery that served halo-halo or Ube rice cakes and bibingka.
This was a fancy French place with omelets in the morning and Croque Monsieur sandwiches in the afternoon.
The Filipinos were told to work in the back and stay there. The restaurants in Beverly Hills and Torrance were for whites, they were told. They were told not to speak Tagalog.
It practically made Romar feel subhuman. Definitely “less than.” And this was on top of getting a fraction of the $2,000 a month he was promised.
What made him feel better is he was able to help his family. Whatever he made, he sent the lion share back to his wife and two sons.
He told me leaving them behind remains “the hardest decision he has made in his entire life.”
And now like the others, he is facing a legal battle and fears of retaliation.
A member of the legal team said there are provisions that might allow for the employees to get new T visas. They are for victims of traffickers.
The legal complaint states: “The workers bring this action against Defendants for labor trafficking, racketeering violations, labor law violations, unfair competition, employment discrimination and retaliation, unfair immigration-related practices, and common law claims.”
A new T Visa would allow the workers the ability to live and bring their endangered families from the Philippines to America.
That wasn’t in the plans at first. It is now.
Louise says once the bakery opened, they got the $2,000 they were promised, but it didn’t add up after all the extra hours at the bakery and at the Almeida home.
“We worked 14 hours a day without overtime pay, breaks and no day off, “Louise said.
The state’s department of labor did conduct an investigation. There still may be a criminal complaint, but Louise and the others learned they also had rights. They spoke up against Ana and were fired. At that point, they decided to contact Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles. It was time to fight.
“I want justice for what happened to me,” Louise said. “I still want to pursue my dream, save (money) and be with my family. …But I have to make this right. I need justice. I fear, but I know I’m doing this for a good cause—for Ana to stop what she’s doing… I hope this thing that happened to me won’t happen to anyone.”
She hopes the “T” visa application comes through so she can start working. But she’s not going to stop talking.
It’s different for Ana Moitinho de Almeida and her husband Goncalo. I made several calls to them once the lawsuit was announced.
The person who answered at the bakery said reporters were “vultures,” and hung up.
A court will decide who the vultures are.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator in Northern California.
He blogs at www.amok.com,
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