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Opinion writer says columnist got it wrong in LA ‘forced labor’ story

/ 08:06 AM April 06, 2015

“Na-koryente.”

That was how Los Angeles, California, based Filipino opinion writer Greg Macabenta described Inquirer.net US columnist Emil Guillermo regarding the latter’s piece entitled “11 workers in LA sue scion of Filipino official for forced labor,” which appeared on March 21, 2015.

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In his opinion piece seen by Inquirer.net, Macabenta said his “friend and fellow San Francisco Bay Area journalist” was “fed a story made out of whole cloth and the media man takes it for the truth, doesn’t bother to check the facts (and the fiction) and goes ahead to write an embellished piece.”

Na-koryente si Emil,” said Macabenta, about “a labor case filed by 11 workers employed on E-2 visas by L’Amande, a high-end French bakery with branches in Torrance and Beverly Hills, owned by a young couple, Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, and his Pinay wife, Analiza,”

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Following is the rest of Macabenta’s opinion piece which he entitled “How to destroy a reputation and get a green card in the process.” He said:

Here are excerpts from his (Guillermo’s) piece, juxtaposed with the facts:

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.”

To the uninformed reader, Emil Guillermo’s write-up suggests that the owners of L’Amande Bakery had recruited “Nora” and persuaded her, with false promises, to work for them in Los Angeles.

Obviously, Emil, on the phone in San Francisco, talking to “Nora” who was calling from LA, either failed to ask or she withheld the information that she, along with the other 11 workers had been working with the Almeidas for some 10 to 26 years, before the couple sold the business.

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That certainly changes the nature of the relationship. That suggests a relationship cordial enough, at the least, to encourage “Nora” and the others to agree to work in the US for the Almeidas.

Here’s some more from Emil’s tale:

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.”

And more of Emil’s horror story:

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.”

The facts?

The Almeidas owned and operated several bakeries in the Philippines before selling them and coming to California to create L’Amande French Bakery in 2012; first in Torrance and then in Beverly Hills. Using the E-2 class visa, which allows qualifying overseas investors to import workers from their own countries if their skills are considered “essential” to the new business, the Almeidas brought in 11 workers. All had worked for them in the Philippines for between 10 and 26 years.

In America, the Almeidas invited the workers to stay with them rent-free for a few months before the opening of the first bakery, even though it made for crowded conditions in their modest home. The Almeidas paid for the workers’ travel and visa fees and paid them each a $2,000 per month salary — the same salaries the Almeidas drew for themselves — for the specialized skills needed to produce L’Amande’s high-end gourmet baked goods. The Almeidas also rented an apartment for the workers, paying the security deposit and the down payment.

Not content with the “slave labor” tale, Emil Guillermo’s interviewees added on the element of harassment and danger to life and limb. Na-koryente si Guillermo even more as he wrote:

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.”

Emil quoted another of the 11, named, “Louise”:

“’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.’”

My friend Emil certainly got carried away, but I can guarantee him that Analiza’s family is far from the Maguindanao type of “powerful and influential” folks that he has portrayed them. I have known and personally worked with Johnny Santos and have known his wife Mila going back to the 1970s and I can bet all the money that Pacquiao and Mayweather will earn that they are at least as gentle and harmless as Emil, if not more so.

Emil doesn’t need to take just my word for it. Here are some unsolicited testimonials:

From Ayvee J of Dublin, CA: “I have known and worked with these people for over 16 years and they were nothing but fair and professional the entire time.”

From Sandra V of Torrance, CA: “I believe we have a version of a Pinocchio story and lots of very gullible people who are believing a fish story…I did notice the reporters did not make any reference to the employees still working. Silence speaks louder than words. Apparently, not everyone is unhappy.”:

Perry Baesa, who worked with the Almeidas in Manila: “I know for a fact that there is no truth to all the accusations being thrown at you and your company. Just to update you as well, that all of their Facebook accounts were erased which goes to show they are hiding the truth of what their situation is there. Examples of which are their expensive trips, their living quarters over there which is more than they deserve…I know deep inside that you are a good person and no amount of threats can ever put you down.”

And why, pray tell, were the FaceBook postings erased? Fortunately, some photographs were downloaded before they could be deleted. And they show the “harassed” and “ill-treated” complainants enjoying a spa, gambling in Las Vegas and toasting themselves with what appears to be glasses of margarita in a backyard, all with happy smiles. Hardly the kind of demeanor of indentured persons.

There’s one interesting aspect to this labor case. Under the Human Trafficking Act, if the E-2 visa workers can prove they were trafficking victims before their temporary visas expire, they can seek asylum and stay in the United States.
In other words, if the 11 complainants succeed in portraying their L’Amande employers as “human traffickers,” they can qualify for asylum and, subsequently, green cards and, down the road, US citizenship. For one desperate to live the “American Dream,” that certainly looks like enough motivation to tarnish the reputation of people and weave a dastardly tale of slave labor and threats to life and limb. But that is for the lawyers to work out.

At any rate, as a fellow journalist, here is where I really fault Emil Guillermo. The labor case has absolutely nothing to do with Analiza’s family, but because her father happens to be prominent, Emil apparently saw an opportunity to add more spice to his story by dragging his name in, along with dark hints of intimidation and even death threats. CB

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TAGS: Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, E-2 visa, Emil Guillermo, forced labor, Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, Greg Macabenta, Juan B. Santos, L’Amande, LA, Le Coeur de France, US Human Trafficking Act
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