Eleven Filipino bakery workers say they were lured to the U.S. by the promise of high wages to support their poor families back home. Instead, they claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in California court, they were forced to work 14-hour days for as little $3 an hour, threatened with debt and deportation if they spoke up about their working conditions.
The workers are now suing the Los Angeles bakery and its owners, a Filipino couple, accusing them of misusing a little-known class of visa, the E-2, which is overseen by the U.S. State Department. The details in the suit echo other allegations of fraud and abuse stemming from the country's numerous guestworker programs, in which workers are brought from overseas and employed temporarily in the U.S., often in low-wage capacities.
The E-2 visa is designed for overseas investors who are bringing new business here and whose countries have investment treaties with the U.S. If investors qualify, they can bring workers here on E-2 visas if those workers' skills are deemed "essential" to getting the business off the ground.
In this case, the workers say they were represented as skilled bakers and supervisors uniquely situated to contribute to the L'Amande French Bakery chain, which has locations in Beverly Hills and Torrance, California. The chain is owned by a couple, Analiza and Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida, who the workers claim misrepresented the work when they secured their visas.
"The workers were told they would work as skilled bakery chefs and managers, but when they arrived what they faced was starkly different," the complaint states. "They were forced to work … in illegal, oppressive, and discriminatory conditions as domestic servants, physical laborers engaged in landscaping and building maintenance, and retail bakery workers doing a substantial amount of menial work."
An email to Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida seeking comment on the lawsuit was not immediately returned.
The workers say in their complaint that they were employed in the couple's bakeries in the Philippines before coming to the U.S., with "limited English skills and little to no understanding of U.S. customs and laws," or the cost of living. They claim the Almeidas paid their visa and travel fees up front, then later held the costs against them as debt, to the tune of $11,000 apiece. Some workers said they were told the visa amounted to a five-year contract requiring them to work.
Seeking backpay and damages, the 11 workers filed the lawsuit with the assistance of an advocacy group, Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Laboni Hoq, a lawyer with the group, said in a statement Thursday that the E-2 visa is "ripe for abuse and employer misuse," and called it "overdue for reform."
"By offering a largely unregulated avenue for wealthy foreign nationals to get a competitive advantage in the U.S. marketplace," Hoq said, "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."
The State Department did not immediately respond when asked if the agency was aware of the workers' allegations.
The federal government oversees a host of guestworker programs that employers say fill critical holes in the U.S. labor supply, from software engineers on down to landscapers. U.S. businesses, and the tech lobby in particular, have tried to expand these programs as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
Labor groups have long complained that overuse of the programs can undercut wages for U.S. workers and lead to mistreatment of those from abroad. As in the case of E-2's, guestworker visas are often tied to a single employer, leaving the worker with little leverage in the event of exploitation.
The programs are overseen by an amalgam of federal agencies, including the State Department, the Labor Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The State Department has been criticized in the past for its management of the J-1 visa program, which is technically a cultural exchange rather than a work program.
In one high-profile J-1 case, college-age students from Asia and Eastern Europe took on thousands of dollars in debt to work as low-wage temps in a Hershey packing plant in Pennsylvania. The case prompted the State Department to make reforms.
J.J. Rosenbaum, legal director at the National Guestworker Alliance, an advocacy group for guestworkers, said the E-2 visa was never intended to bring pools of low-wage labor to the U.S., but a lack of oversight and labor law enforcement could make it easy to do so.
"What's intended is you're coming over here and you're going to start up some kind of factory," she said by way of example. "You need your engineers to come over and set the factory up so it can run right. But the idea is not that you bring over the factory workers."
Rosenbaum added that many foreign investors availing themselves of E-2 visas may be wealthy and politically connected in the workers' home countries, thereby making it difficult for workers to step forward alleging exploitation.
"That's why I think this case is really important," she said of the bakery workers in L.A.