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Croissants

How One Bakery Exploited The US Visa Program & Vulnerable Workers

In 2015, the Los Angeles pastry shop L’Amande French Bakery was sued by 11 Filipino workers who said they were deceived into moving to America by the promise of “skilled” work. After they arrived in California, the workers learned that the reality of their new lives would be very different than Ana and Goncal Moutinho de Almeida had advertised.

Croissants In Bakery

Rather than being trained as bakery chefs and store managers, the workers claim that L’Amande’s owners “forced” them to perform a litany of “illegal, oppressive and discriminatory” jobs, many of which had nothing to do with baking. The workers say they were routinely made to perform landscaping, building maintenance and construction at an apartment complex owned by the Almeida family. Shifts frequently lasted longer than 17 hours, they allege, and workers were often paid far below California’s minimum wage. To hide these wage and hour violations, the Almeidas “altered or destroyed the workers’ timecards and told them not to accurately report their actual time worked,” court documents relate.

After Years Of Exploitation, Workers Win $15M

On Monday, May 9, 2016, the workers’ more than six year ordeal came to a close. Seven days earlier, the court had scheduled oral arguments, a move that would have brought together both sides of the dispute to share their perspective on the events in controversy. But the Almeida family didn’t show up, and US District Court Judge Fernando Olguin had no choice but issue a default judgment. He ordered the Almeidas to pay their former workers more than $15 million.

The lawsuit, initiated after California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement began investigating accusations of labor violations at the bakery, is Alabado et al. v French Concepts, Inc. et al. A version of the original complaint is available here.

Store Owners Cheat Little-Known Visa Process

Beyond exploiting vulnerable workers for years, the Almeida family had abused a little-known visa process to bring their labor-force to the United States in the first place, the workers’ lawsuit alleged.

The E-2 Investor Visa was designed to encourage foreign investment in America, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under the E-2 program, wealthy foreign nationals are allowed to enter and work in the US if they invest a substantial amount of money to start a business that will be based here.

Ana Moitinho de Almeida comes from a powerful family in the Philippines. Privileged with vast wealth and political connections, Ana and her husband Goncalo began opening bakeries in the Philippines in 1994. Their Le Coeur de France shops met with success and eventually expanded to 14 different locations. Most of the workers who would ultimately make their way to America worked first for the Almeidas at Le Coeur de France. By 2008, the Almeida family had decided to try their bakery concept in the States, settling on the E-2 Visa program as their best legal option to set up shop.

“Human Trafficking”

E-2 visas specifically apply only to a principal investor, a wealthy foreign national who has the capital to begin a new US business or contribute to an existing. But foreign employees of the investor can also be allowed to enter and work in the US, under certain circumstances:

  • the worker must be of the same nationality as the principal investor
  • the worker must be employed as an “employee” under US federal law, rather than an independent contractor
  • the worker must be engaged in duties of an executive or supervisory character, or if employed in a lesser capacity, have special qualifications

These are strict requirements and, on their visa applications, the Almeidas told officials at the US Embassy that the Filipino workers would be serving as highly-trained bakers and store supervisors in the french-style bake shop the family planned to open. That, as the workers allege in their complaint, was a total lie. The family also lied about how much the workers would receive in compensation for their labor, according to the lawsuit, capping off a string of violations that the workers argued amounted to “human trafficking.”

Broken Promises

But even more horrifying are deceptions the workers say were used to coerce them into joining the Almeida family in the US.

The Almeidas fraudulently “trapped” the workers in their visas, according to the complaint. Some workers were told that the visa was actually a contract, one which obligated them to work only for the family for a period of five years. Of course, that’s not true, although workers who discontinue their relationship with a visa’s primary investor do have to pay for their own visa processing and travel expenses if they choose to leave the business. Ana Moutinho de Almeida didn’t tell the workers about that requirement, they say. She did, on the other hand, later use the repayment requirement as a threat against them, once the workers began to complain about their over-long hours and illegally low pay.

“Exploitative, Substandard Working Conditions”

Gina Pablo-Grossman began working for the Almeidas in 2000, when the family still lived in the Philippines. Then, she was a nanny for their son, making around $120 a month.

Park In Manila Philippines

A park in Manila, capital city of the Philippines.

When the Almeidas announced their move to the US, they suggested that Pablo-Grossman accompany them, so she could continue caring for their child. But once she arrived in California, Gina’s role quickly began to change, she writes in the lawsuit. Beyond watching over the family’s son, the Almeida’s put Gina to work cleaning and painting their apartment building. Then she was forced to work in the kitchen of their bakery. Finally, Gina became the family’s full-time domestic servant. This was a job that, in 2009, Ana had promised Gina she would never do. But like so many of the Almeida’s promises, it was a lie, the workers claim.

Before their move to California, the workers were promised double, even quadruple, what they were making in the Philippines. Today, the workers say they were often paid $3 an hour, working for months on end without a day off.

Smear Campaign

The lawsuit was filed on March 19, 2015 in a California state court for the County of Los Angeles. The Almeidas’ immediate reaction was bizarre, and it would become increasingly strange as days became months, and the litigation stretched on.

First, the couple abruptly closed their two California bakeries, firing their employees with no notice. Then, after the shops had been shuttered, Ana began posting photos on their darkened windows, images she would tell reporters depicted L’Amande’s satisfied employees. People were shown sightseeing in Hollywood, visiting Disneyland and sunbathing on a South California beach, according to local news outlet Daily Breeze.

Ana set up a website, www.justiceforlamandebakery.com, in which she viciously attacked the workers’ credibility, publishing photos of them smiling and laughing in an attempt to “prove” that they had been pleased with their work situation. The Almeidas also filed suit themselves. Ana sued her cousins, in what the relatives called an attempt to intimidate anyone from testifying against her.

Meanwhile, the family had begun dumping its assets, selling off their apartment building in Long Beach for more than $2 million and initiating proceedings that would have transferred the deed to their home to a relative. In court documents, attorneys for the workers argued that the Almeidas were attempting to liquidate their assets, so that there would be no money to pay out damages assessed in the lawsuit. It now appears, however, that the family never had plans to go before a judge. The Almeidas skipped oral arguments in the lawsuit, leading to a $15.2 million judgement in favor of their former workers.

But the allegations seem to have caught up to them in the Philippines. On February 19, 2016, one year after the 11 workers filed their lawsuit, La Coeur de France announced that it would be shutting its doors. The company, which the Almeida family sold in 2008, has closed all 14 of its bakeries in the Philippines, reports Rappler, a Manila-based news site.

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