11 Filipino workers seeking more than $1M in damages from Beverly Hills baker
LOS ANGELES — A group of half a dozen Filipino employees suing their employer, a Beverly Hills bakery is asking $1 million in damages, alleging exploitative working conditions, forced labor and national origin discrimination, among other allegations.
The lawsuit was filed on their behalf and five others by the large legal firm Latham and Watkins LLP, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA.
The defendants are Goncalo De Almeida and his wife of Filipino ancestry, Analiza Mointinho de Almeida owners of French Connections, which does business as L’Amande French Bakery,.
The complaint lists plaintiffs Ermita Alabano, Fernando Belidhon, Romar Cunanan, Armelinda dela Cerna, Elmer Genito, Wilfredo Lariga,Jr., Louise Luis, Gina Pablo-Grossman, Recky Puzon, Ronald Santia, Rolando Suratos, all workers at the L’Amande bakery. While most lost their jobs at the bakery, some are still working there.
In a press conference March 19 sponsored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, Laboni Hoq, litigation director of the advocacy group alleged that “11 Filipino workers 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 practices.”
Filed in Superior Court
The complaint was filed with the Superior Court of California Central District Judicial District (Case No. BC576048) listing 27 causes of action ranging from human trafficking, racial, ancestry and ethnicity discrimination and harassment, federal and California labor laws violations, illegal immigration-related practices, fraud and negligent misrepresentation, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and unfair business competition.
The accusations stemmed from findings of the California state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement audit of the business, which began December 2013, that the bakery establishment had committed violations of various California labor laws.
INQUIRER.net sought comments from the owners on Thursday at their fashionable Beverly Hills location, but they were not available. The store is patronized mostly by urban professionals, with the front counter managed predominantly by Caucasian workers, one with a French accent. The bakery has another branch in Torrance, Ca.
In the lawsuit, John Trang, staff attorney at Advancing Justice – LA stated 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. Some of the violations had been corrected at this time, according to Trang because of the audit.
One worker, Louise Luis, said she was terminated after being interviewed by Labor investigators. She said a person named Ana had offered her work as a supervisor of the bakery in America and promised to pay her $2,000 a month. Louise was asked to sign a document stating that it cost $11,000 to process her working papers
“As we waited for the bakery to open within six months, I worked as a domestic servant for Ana. I got paid $330 a month working ix a.m. to 8 p.m. every day,” Louise said.
When the bakery opened, Louise said she “worked harder seven days a week 12- 14 hours a day.” The Filipino workers were paid less than the non-Filipino workers, she said. She and other Filipinos were allegedly threatened with cancellation of their working permits and being sent home. “When I learned about my rights as a worker, I wanted the owner to stop abusing my co-Filipino workers,” Louise said.
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.
“The E-2 visa is especially ripe for abuse and employer misuse, and is overdue for reform,” said Advancing Justice’s Laboni Hoq.
“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 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 $1,000,000, as attorneys said, “We will pursue additional damages and penalties based on the many legal claims.”
Advancing Justice Staff Attorney John Trang said the agency 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. “The workers deserve to stay in the U.S. where they can continue to contribute to the American economy,” Trang added.
Advancing Justice – LA (formerly Asian Pacific American Legal Center), headed by Stewart Kwoh has successfully joined in litigating other lawsuits filed on behalf of Filipino and Asian workers.
One landmark case was the national origin complaint by nurses filed against the a Delano hospital, alleging that the employees where prohibited from speaking Tagalog at the workplace. It is believed to be the largest language discrimination settlement in the U.S. healthcare industry ($975,000 settlement). The hospital denied having violated the law but settled to avoid further litigation expenses.