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Filipino workers sue bakery alleging forced labor, scant pay

March 20, 2015

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Filipino workers brought to this country by the husband-and-wife owners of a bakery have sued the business and the couple, claiming they were forced to do laundry and yard work, received meager wages and told they would have to pay off a hefty debt if they tried to leave.

The current and former workers filed the labor-trafficking lawsuit Wednesday against L’Amande French Bakery in Los Angeles Superior Court. They demanded more than $1 million in back and overtime pay and damages.

The 11 workers, who were brought to the U.S. on visas between 2009 and 2014, were told they would have jobs in the bakery or as a nanny. But once they arrived in California, they had to clean and paint an apartment complex and do laundry and yard work for bakery owners Analiza and Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, the lawsuit states.

After the bakery opened, some of the employees said they were forced to work at least 13 hours a day for several months for a fraction of the pay they were promised. When they complained, the lawsuit says, they were told they owed the owners $11,000 for the cost of their trip.

California labor investigators began looking into conditions at the bakery in 2013, but workers were threatened with lawsuits in the Philippines if they spoke out, according to a copy of the complaint. Five of the workers who did complain later were fired, it says.

A message left for the owners at the bakery’s Torrance location was not immediately returned. A manager at the bakery’s Beverly Hills location declined to comment.

Former L’Amande employee Louise Luis said she left her 6-year-old son with family in the Philippines on the promise of earning $2,000 a month as a bakery store manager in the U.S. Soon after arriving, she said she was put to work washing cars and gardening and paid less than $400 a month until the store finally opened some eight months later.

There, she said she worked long hours and eventually started getting paid her proper wage. When the state began investigating the bakery, Luis said her boss told her to lie about her working conditions.

“I want to go home, but I also want to have justice first, and get what I deserve, and of course to get my unpaid wages,” Luis said.

Nicole Ochi, an attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, said the fired bakery workers can’t get other jobs in the U.S. because their visas were tied to their employer under a program for foreign investors. The workers are now seeking special visas for trafficking victims, she said.

The company was cited by the state in May 2014 for not paying workers nearly $250,000 in overtime wages, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the state labor commissioner’s office.

After the bakery appealed, a hearing was held in July, and another one has been scheduled for May 19. The case is still under investigation, Monterroza said.

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