Trafficked Pinoy bakery workers celebrate visa victory

Steve Angeles, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Jun 11 2016 12:30 PM

LOS ANGELES - With their families by their side, along with Congressman Ted Lieu and the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, eleven Filipino bakery workers celebrated a sweet victory receiving their trafficking visas.

"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.

Fifteen months ago, these workers accused Filipino-owned L'Amande Bakery of bringing them to the US to work in slave-like conditions, being paid as little as $3 dollars an hour.

They said they had to pay back as much as $11,000 for being brought to the US and if they complained about the working conditions or the loan, they claimed they were threatened with deportation.

While the attorneys from Advancing Justice pursued the legal case, Congress looked for ways to give them relief.

"We wanted to make sure these workers in fact were not deported. We worked with federal agencies to make sure they stay here while we prosecute their cases against their very abusive owners," Lieu said.

The T visas have now given these workers a chance to reunite with their families.

"Masaya po, masaya. Thankful, thankful, nakita namin si Papa after a long time," said Nina Andrea Velithon.

The case surfaced in early 2015. Last month, the workers were awarded a $15-million default judgement after the bakery's owners refused to respond to the lawsuit.

When the lawsuits surfaced during the closure of their stores, the L'Amande owners, the De Almeidas, had gone on social media, on store fronts, and started a website claiming that the workers were using the lawsuit as an attempt to gain green cards.

The De Almeidas showed pictures of pay stubs and photos of the workers on vacation, claiming the workers lied about the low salaries.

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.

While the money may take a while to collect, the T visas are a major immediate victory -- a chance to start new dreams in a place that they once thought was a nightmare.

Read more on Balitang America.