The advertisements of the Los Angeles patisserie L’Amande beckon guests with luxuriant indulgences: “You can see through the glass windows when you walk into our bakery that our busy artisans are hard at work hand-preparing our specialties.”
Many of those busy artisans were another kind of guest—guest workers from the Philippines whom the owners had brought with them as part of their “capital investment” in the United States. They’re now taking their boss to court for turning a coveted job at a self-proclaimed “Bakery of your Dreams” into a nightmare of abuse.
According to the lawsuit brought by eleven Filipino workers, the bakery owners Analiza Moitinho de Almeida and Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida had recruited the guest workers mostly from the staff of the bakery they ran in the Philippines. Analiza offered them positions as pastry chefs or managers at a new bakery location in the United States, earning about $2,000 a month—several times what they would make in the Philippines.
But the plans started to go sour once they landed in the US. According to the complaint, immediately they were pressed into jobs that they had never agreed to do. While living in Analiza’s home, they earned meager wages while initially preparing the bakery site for the opening and doing housework. One defendant, Gina, testified that she had been hired as a nanny but was saddled with “extra domestic chores and manual labor,” earning only $300 to $400 a month and working as many as sixteen hours a day.
At the bakery, three workers testified that from the time they arrived in September, 2011, they toiled both at the site of the business to prepare for the opening and at the owners’ apartment complex earning between $370 and $500 each month for the next several months. Their monthly pay rose to $1,000 after the opening in early 2012 but they had to work thirteen to seventeen hours a day—not just as managers and top chefs, but also as basic kitchen laborers. Even though their payments eventually rose to the promised monthly amount, the intensity of their work sometimes resulted in “14-hour work days and wages of less than $3 per hour.” Throughout this period, they allegedly were denied the legally required overtime pay and breaks for meals and rest time.
Workers say Ana routinely hurled verbal abuse at them and “discouraged them from socializing”—even admonishing against speaking their native Tagalog at work. L’Amande, they were warned, “was not a Filipino restaurant, it’s for white people.”
The owners are accused of imposing debt bondage, demanding that the workers “continue to work under the exploitative conditions or they would each owe Defendants over $11,000—sums the Workers could never afford to pay.” The workers dreaded the possibility of losing their visas and being sent home if they quit or were fired, especially as Ana had threatened workers who defied her or protested their working conditions with financial ruin or retaliation against their families.
Over time, however, the workers realized that while their immigration status was precarious, they were entitled to equal rights under US law. They began noticing that unlike the guest workers, the regular non-Filipino bakery employees all appeared to earn “at least the minimum wage as well as overtime rates for any overtime hours,” and could use time cards to clock their hours.
A coworker informed her that she should be earning overtime pay, says a worker who calls herself Nora. “But I told her that, well, as far as Ana is concerned, us Filipinos, we’re expected to work very long hours, but the pay is the same.… We were following what Ana was saying, because she was the one who brought us here. So we realized we couldn’t complain.”
The L’Amande workers’ plight overall involves typical abuses of guest workers, but one oddity of their case is that their bosses were “guests” too: Filipino investors invited in through an elite migration program for entrepreneurs, the E2 visa, which brings in “foreign nationals” to invest “substantial capital,” and allows them to import their own professional and managerial employees on visas for up to five years. While it reflects the laxity of guestworker program regulation in general, the relatively small E2, considered a “treaty” program under the State Department, is even less regulated than other programs that are overseen directly by the Labor Department. The more widespread H2 agricultural and service worker programs, for example, are also rife with abuses but are at least governed by various industry-specific standards and protections.
According to Nicole Gon Ochi, an attorney working on the case with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, “the E2 visa is unique because it provides an opportunity for wealthy investors from other countries to exert control over workers both in the United States and in their home country.” So compared to an abusive employer based in the US, she notes, a boss may have major wealth and influence in a home country where “the rule of law is weak, increasing the risk that something very bad will happen to them or their families.”
The owners were jolted in December 2013 when California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement initiated an audit. The owners allegedly “instructed the workers to lie to the investigators and other government officials,” even going so far as to falsify payroll records and compel workers to fill out verification documents—and the intimidation intensified, until several were fired earlier this year. Another worker Romar Cunanan testified, “When I stood up for my rights and refused to lie to the labor investigator about the conditions…Ana threatened to sue me and ruin my life and that of my family in the Philippines.” The company appealed the state’s citations, but declined a request by The Nation to comment on the lawsuit.
The workers ultimately defied the owners, cooperated with the investigation and filed their own individual claims of labor violations late last year. “We want Ana to learn a lesson from this, from everything that she did to us,” Nora says. “So that she will not do it again to other people.”
Although the L’Amande affair was in many ways a typical transnational labor trafficking case, the E2 visa reflects intricate class divides within immigration law. Labor is cheap, and as the law bends in the direction of wealth, elite entrepreneurs can buy a legal pathway into the Land of the Free. Ordinary migrant laborers, meanwhile, are shut out, abused and discarded. If any boss with enough capital can purchase a first-class ticket through one of the world’s most restrictive immigration regimes, what’s to stop any corporation from buying a free pass on human rights?