Filipino bakery workers win $15.2-M case against employers, awarded T visas

FILIPINO workers, who prevailed in a yearlong legal battle against the owners of a French bakery in Southern California, now have temporary authorization to live and work in the US.

After winning a $15.2 million case against the owners of the now shuttered L’Amande Bakery (which had locations in Torrance and Beverly Hills), the 11 plaintiffs have been awarded T visas, which allow victims of human trafficking to temporarily live and work in the United States.

The arrangement was made possible through the collaboration between the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles and the office of House Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents California’s 33rd congressional district.

“They used to call us trafficked workers, but now you can also call us survivors,” said Romar Cunanan, a former employee of L’Amande, at a press event hosted by Advancing Justice – Los Angeles on Thursday, June 9.

The victims said they were lured to work in the US by Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, who had owned the L’Amande bakeries along with her husband, Goncalo. The Filipino nationals entered the US legally with E-2 guest worker visas, then were subjected to harsh conditions shortly after they arrived.

According to court documents, the bakery employees were paid as little as $3 per hour, endured 12-hour or more workdays for extended periods without days off, were made to sleep on floors, and were regularly demeaned and intimidated by the Almeidas.

“I once asked Ana, ‘Ma’am, could you please treat us like human beings?,’” said former L’Amande employee, Gina Pablo. “She said ‘who are you to say that? You are just a maid.’”

Workers who wanted to stop working for the Almeidas were told they would be deported and would each have to pay back $1,000 in immigration fees. None of the guest workers acknowledge ever making that kind of agreement.  Cunanan said that he had been in the US for seven  months before ever hearing of his supposed debts.

The workers also alleged that the Almeidas also threatened to use their political connections in the Philippines to harm the former L’Amande workers’ families living there.

“I’m still afraid for my other daughter [still in the Philippines],” former L’Amande employee Ermita Alabado told the Asian Journal. “It’s safer here. In the Philippines, P20,000 [approximately. $434] would be enough to send someone out to hurt her.”

The Almeidas declined to comment on the default judgment when the Asian Journal reached out.

“The default judgment is a miscarriage of justice, brought about by the abuse of both the justice and immigration systems by the plaintiffs and their lawyers,” Analiza Almeida had told NBC News in an e-mail back in May.

In addition to providing work authorization and a pathway to citizenship, T visas allow recipients to petition their spouses as well as their unmarried children under the age of 21 for entry into the United States.

John Trang, the lead attorney in the L’Amande employees’ immigration proceedings, called the T visa program an important “incentive to testify,” in cases of migrant and guest worker abuse.

Rather than succumb to blackmail and despair, the employees sought help. They got in touch with Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, who enlisted the aid of Latham and Watkins for  filing complaints against the Almeidas.

A Filipino American who works for Rep. Lieu shared the workers’ stories with the congressman, who then met face-to-face with the former bakery employees. Lieu helped advance the workers’ immigration proceedings so they could finally reunite with their families and earn decent wages.

“I haven’t seen my son since 2013,” said former L’Amande employee, Armelinda dela Cerna. “Now I am planning to have him come here.”

Dela Cerna says she has known Ana Almeida for 13 years. She was told she would serve as purchasing manager for their bakeries, but instead found herself performing a variety of menial tasks in addition to her duties as a manager. Now she works as a food and beverage manager in the hospitality industry.

She, as well as many of the other Filipino workers, have found jobs in their respective fields since leaving the employment of the Almeidas. Most of them live in the vicinity of Lomita, California, and still keep in touch with one another, according to former L’Amande employee, Recky Puzon. Some are entertaining the possibility of becoming naturalized citizens.

“The Filipino workers’ story ultimately ends with a victory in justice’s name,” said Rep. Lieu in a statement announcing Thursday’s press event. “Sadly, their story is just one of many.”

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