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Labor Trafficking Survivors Find Voice, Stability with Help from Congress

The 11 Filipino workers in Los Angeles, who last month won a $15.3 million federal court judgment for the human trafficking and labor violations of their former employer, have obtained visas to stay in the United States with the help of a member of Congress.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who helped the workers win new visas in order to stave off deportation and fight their civil case, said he wants to see their employers taken to court on criminal charges for human trafficking.

"I'll ask my staff to look into it," Lieu told NBC News. The congressman said he was struck by the conditions at the now shuttered L'Amande Bakery in Torrance, which he described as a "modern form of slavery."

RELATED: Bakery Owners Defiant Despite Court Order to Pay $15 Million in Human Trafficking Suit

The bakery owners, Analiza Moitinho de Almeida and her husband Goncalo, did not respond to a request by NBC News for a comment.

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.

Earlier this month, after a federal court ordered the bakery to pay $15.3 million in damages, the owners insisted they were the ones being victimized by workers who wanted to extend their stay in the U.S.

"The default judgment is a miscarriage of justice, brought about by the abuse of both the justice and immigration systems by the plaintiffs and their lawyers," Analiza Moitinho de Almeida told NBC News in an e-mail earlier this month.

Image:
Left to right, Ermita Alabado, Gina Pablo, Louis Luis, and Fernan Belidihon, stand during a news conference at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 19, 2015. Nick Ut / AP

The Almeidas left the United States after selling their real estate and businesses in the country last fall. They did not show up to their court hearing, resulting in adefault judgment in civil court.

Rep. Lieu said a criminal case against the bakers could have merit.

"It really was quite an abusive situation," Lieu said, referring to workers' working conditions. Most egregious, Lieu said, was the $11,000 fee the owners said the workers owed them for bringing them in from the Philippines under the E-2 Investor visa program.

The workers at first felt they had no choice but to go along with their employers' demands, they said.

Romar Cunanan, 34, told NBC News he worked 14 hour days in the kitchen with a one-hour break. His pay was just $1,000 a month for six months.

And then in the seventh month, Cunanan said he was told about the $11,000 payment that he was expected to pay, or face deportation.

"We cannot talk to anyone about what's happening to us, that's what she told us, so for me that's enough to call it trafficking," Cunanan said.

Cunanan said it was in December 2013, when the California Department of Labor conducted an audit on the Almeida's operations that the workers finally learned of their rights and decided to seek help.

"Telling the truth makes us be strong," Cunanan said.

Lawyers for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, with pro-bono aid from the law firm Latham and Watkins filed suit on behalf of Cunanan and his co-workers last year.

They are now seeking ways to collect the money from the Almeidas, though much of it may be overseas. There may also not be a way to compel the Almeidas to pay any of the $15.3 million awarded by the court.

"To be honest, I'm not thinking about the money," Cunanan said. "The money is just a bonus, of what we're getting right now, the visa, the work permit, and family."

The new T visas obtained with Lieu's help gives the workers a three-year window to live and work in the U.S., as well as allow family members to join them here.

The visas also enable them to fight for justice as witnesses should there be criminal charges brought against the bakery owners for human trafficking.

"Essentially, the critical piece [in the law] is force, fraud or coercion, and I think all of that is reflected in the experience of our clients here, said Christopher Lapining, one of the workers' lawyers. "It's well known among human trafficking advocates that our federal human trafficking law remains fairly under-enforced, pretty dramatically under enforced. There have only been a couple of dozen prosecutions of human trafficking to date, even though it's been about 8 years since the federal trafficking law was last authorized."

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But whether criminal charges are brought or not, Romar Cunanan believes that just by standing up, he and the others can help other trafficked workers realize don't have to feel trapped.

"We want to be an example to them," Cunanan said. "We want to tell them that we have rights. We are not just a victim for the rest of our lives. We have to fight for our rights. We want to give them inspiration."

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