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Workers at Bel-Air mansion claim they were trafficked to U.S. via Middle East

Former Occidental CEO sued

Former Occidental Petroleum CEO Ray Irani, shown in 2005, is being sued by three women who worked in his Bel-Air home.

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Three women from the Philippines have filed a lawsuit against Ray Irani, the former chief executive of Occidental Petroleum Corp., and his wife Ghada, alleging the couple underpaid and overworked them at their Bel-Air mansion, and that two of the women were trafficked into the U.S. via Qatar and effectively confined at the couple’s home.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, the women claim that the work at the Iranis’ eight-bedroom, 14-bathroom home — such as cleaning, preparing food and performing massages and manicures — was grueling, and some workdays lasted up to 16 hours.

Two of the women started at a fixed salary of $1,200 per month, without overtime, according to court papers.

Their passports were confiscated and security details kept close tabs on their movements, amounting to imprisonment in the opulent, 17,480-square-foot home and its grounds, according to the complaint.

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Ghada Irani, a philanthropist who chairs the Southern California regional board of UNICEF, is alleged to have denigrated the workers’ nationality, referring to Filipinos as “liars” who “cannot be trusted,” according to the complaint.

“Dr. [Ray] Irani was well aware of the abusive and hostile environment created by Mrs. Irani’s highly offensive remarks and treatment … but failed to stop” it, the suit alleges.

An attorney for the couple told The Times that he was unaware that any people employed by the Iranis had such complaints.

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“Unfortunately, people like the Iranis, who make large charitable contributions, are often the subject of lawsuits such as this,” said Lee Dresie, a lawyer at the Century City firm Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger.

“I know both Dr. and Mrs. Irani and they are wonderful people. I would be very surprised if this lawsuit has any basis.”

One of the women, Trinidad Dela Cruz, was brought to the U.S. in 1997 from Saudi Arabia, where she had been working for one of Ghada Irani’s relatives, according to the suit. Dela Cruz, who stopped working for the Irani family on Jan. 31, has fewer claims against her former employers than the other two women but contends she worked for nearly two decades without proper compensation. She said she was paid by the Iranis’ limited liability company, which was also named in the suit.

The other two women, Melanie Belonio and Elena Gabriel, had been working at the Iranis’ vacation home in Lebanon when they were brought to the U.S. in 2013, court papers say.

The circumstances of their arrival, they claim, amounted to human trafficking.

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According to the 40-page lawsuit, Gabriel and Belonio were shuttled to Qatar, where they were “falsely represented to be working for the ruling royal family of Qatar.” From there, they were given visas to travel to the U.S. and flew to Los Angeles, where Ray Irani allegedly confiscated their passports and stored them in his office, according to the lawsuit.

When one of the women asked for her passport back, Ghada Irani allegedly said: “You’re going to live here, you’re going to work here, and you’re going to die here.”

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Both women contend that Ghada Irani threatened them with arrest or prosecution if they left, and that she once ordered them confined to their shared bedroom after she accused the women of theft, according to the suit.

All three women claim Ghada Irani slandered them on several occasions, referring to her Filipino staff as “idiots” and thieves, according to the suit.

Gabriel and Belonio, who also allege they were not given proper rest, meal breaks and a minimum wage, left the Irani’s household on Feb. 10.

Ray Irani took the reins of Occidental Petroleum, then based in Westwood, in 1990, and over more than two decades built the company into one of the largest in the oil and gas industry. 

During his tenure at Oxy, Irani took criticism for his outsized pay, including more than $460 million in compensation in 2006. That year, the company’s compensation committee cited Irani’s “particularly strong relationships with government leaders in a number of Middle East countries" as giving Occidental a competitive edge. 

In 2013, at the age of 78, Irani was ousted from the company, now based in Houston.

Before filing the lawsuit, all three women secured right-to-sue letters on March 29 with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing regarding the alleged harassment and discrimination.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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