LOS Angeles –The United States government recently provided T-visas to the 11 Filipino victims of human trafficking after they won their lawsuit against the owners of L’Amonde French Bakery who subjected them to inhumane working conditions.
T visas provide victims of human trafficking temporary legal status and work authorization and allow them to bring their families to the U.S. The T visas were in addition to a $15.2 million default judgment rendered last month.
“The joy we felt after all these years of stressful situation is indescribable,” said bakery worker Armie Dela Cerna.
“They’re now able to have some relief for at least three years and we really have appreciated their courage to stand up,” Stewart Kwoh of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said.
“The employer in this case held the workers as captive labor, not with the use of barbed wire and armed guard, but with more subtle forms of coercion, including forcing a significant debt on the workers and threatening to harm them in the home country,” said Yanin Senachai, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles at a press conference on Thursday.
Romar Cunanan, one of the workers recruited to work at the bakery, thanked their lawyers and Congressman Ted Lieu “for listen- ing to our hearts and believing in us.”
The bakery owners, Goncalo and Analiza Moitinho de Almeida, left the U.S. and sold all their U.S. holdings before the court could hear the case so it is uncertain if the workers could get any of the $15.2 million judgment. The de Almeida couple didn’t attend any of the court proceedings.
Analiza Moitinho de Almeida is the daughter of Juan B. Santos, the former head of Nestlé in the Philippines and current head of that country’s Social Security System.
AAAJ-LA says the workers were fraudulently lured by their employer to the U.S. from the Philippines on E-2 visas and then subjected to abusive and exploitative working conditions, including workdays as long as 17 hours and wages as low as $3 an hour. The workers were also threatened with a significant debt of $11,000 each unless they agreed to work under these illegal conditions for at least three years.
When the workers refused to lie to authorities about their working conditions, the owners of the bakery allegedly retaliated by terminating their positions, leaving the workers in immigration limbo. They also threatened to use their political connections to harm the workers and their families in the Philippines.
In March last year, Lieu (D-Torrance) met with the workers. After the meeting, Lieu reached out to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in support of the workers.
“During our meeting, the Filipino guest workers recounted a systematic and lengthy period of verbal and physical abuse by their employers. It is disheartening to know that human trafficking can occur so close to home and that individuals are subjected to such psychological and inhumane treatment,” said Lieu.
“In this case, the Filipino workers’ story ultimately ends with a victory in justice’s name. Sadly, however, their story is just one of many. I will work with Advancing Justice-LA on ways to improve how our government assists victims of human trafficking and to prevent future cases so women, men and children are not subjected to such deplorable treatment in the United States.”
With the T visas, the 11 workers have a chance to rebuild their lives here in the U.S., including the ability to find other employment. All 11 workers are now employed elsewhere and several are planning to bring over family members they have not seen in years.
AAAJ-LA filed the T visas on behalf of the workers with the help of attorneys Nicole Kim, Angela Makabali, and Maximillian Hirsch, working under the auspices of Skadden’s pro bono program.
“We are thrilled that our clients have the opportunity to rebuild their lives in the U.S. This case represents a harder to detect, but perhaps more prevalent form of human trafficking than what we are used to hearing about,” said Senachai of AAJC-LA.
“Masaya po, masaya. Thankful, thankful, nakita namin si Papa after a long time,” Nina Andrea Velithon told Balitang America.
In an email to Balitang America, the De Almeidas, who have since gone to the Philippines, explained that they did not have millions to spare for their defense, and there will be no appeal.
They described the $15-million award as ridiculous and felt that if that was what justice looks like, then they were right about not wasting time or money on their defense.