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L.A. bakery owners ordered to pay $15.3 million for abuse of workers on visas

Eleven Filipino bakery workers who sued the now-shuttered L'Amande French Bakery over labor exploitation include, from left, Fernan Belidhon, Elmer Genito, Romar Cunanan, Louise Luis, Gina Pablo and Ermita Alabado.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The owners of the now-shuttered L’Amande French Bakery that operated in Beverly Hills and Torrance have been ordered to pay nearly $15.3 million in damages for exploiting 11 Filipino workers.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Olguin on May 2 granted a default judgment to the workers, who claimed they were trafficked to the United States to serve as domestic servants and under-the-table employees at two bakeries owned by defendants Analiza and Goncalo Moitinho de Almeida.

“Unfortunately, time and time again, we see exploitative employers … resort to fraud and other unlawful activity to escape accountability for their labor abuses,” Christopher Lapinig, a lawyer who represented the workers, said in a statement Friday. “With this judgment, we hope to make clear to such employers that they can no longer act with impunity.”

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The Filipino workers say they were recruited by the bakery owners with the promise of earning more than double their pay back home. But when the workers arrived in Southern California in 2012 under a little-known visa program for foreign investors and their employees, they got a rude awakening.

A lawsuit filed in 2015 alleges the bakery owners forced them to work 17-hour days for less than minimum wage and no overtime pay. It says one worker was paid only $100 for a month’s work.

Additionally, workers said they had to do construction projects at a Long Beach apartment complex owned by the Almeidas as well as cleaning and landscaping at the couple’s Rolling Hills Estates home. For months, workers said, they slept on the floor in the home’s laundry room and were paid just over $2 an hour.

The lawsuit also accused the Almeidas of labor violations, human trafficking and retaliation after several workers who cooperated with a state investigation of the bakery were fired.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Almeidas shut down both bakery locations last year, according to attorneys for the workers.

The 11 Filipino workers came to the U.S. on E-2 visas, which give immigrants with specialized skills authorization to work for a foreign national who has invested a substantial amount of money in a U.S.-based business.

The Almeidas, who could not be reached for comment, were ordered in 2014 by the California labor commissioner’s office to pay nearly $250,000 in overtime wages to workers, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

ben.poston@latimes.com

Follow @bposton on Twitter.

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.

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