California Luxury Resort Accused of Trafficking and Exploiting Asian Workers

Editor’s Note: This article has been changed to clarify that a complaint was filed against Terranea Resort with the U.S. State Department.

A fancy resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California has been accused of trafficking and exploiting migrant workers who are mostly from Asian countries, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Based on a complaint filed in the US Department of State by hotel workers’ union Unite Here on behalf of an Indian couple on Dec. 22, Terranea Resort allegedly violated State Department regulations by hiring migrant workers from the Philippines, India, and Malaysia on J-1 visas to replace nearly its entire entry-level cook workforce.

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In the lawsuit, former interns Wahid Rahman and his fiancee Falak Rashid are seeking an investigation into the resort’s international internship program, which has allowed it to treat the workers unfairly. The workers reportedly paid to get into the year-long program, which was supposed to provide training and education for interns, hoping to gain worthwhile culinary experience via the various kitchens at the resort.

Prospective interns were reportedly promised supervised training across a variety of cuisines via promotional videos and Skype interviews. However, the interns allegedly “performed the same routine tasks as ordinary workers, but pay large placement fees and don’t receive raises or benefits,” the complainants claimed.

According to the complaint, the 45 interns who were accepted in 2017 essentially replaced almost all the resort’s entry-level employees. An old employee of the resort estimated that 60% of full-time entry-level positions are currently filled with interns, who are mostly from the international internship program.

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Rashid and Rahman said they spent a total of $15,000 together on airfare, visas, and placement fees just to participate in the “internship.” The pair, who are now also seeking for the reimbursement of their expenses, stated that upon reaching LA, they themselves sought their own housing, bought their own kitchen supplies, and other necessities.

They said they quit after working at the resort after less than two months. When they returned home to Kolkata, India, they claimed to have accumulated $11,000 in debt.

Lawyer Jeremy Blasi, who represents Unite Here, noted that while this is not a typical human trafficking case, “there are elements of the law that are meant to protect workers from this kind of abuse.”

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Jon Tuason, who was recruited in 2015 while studying at a culinary school in the Philippines, told the LA Times that he was assigned to the room service kitchen for about five months before he was allowed to transfer to the cold kitchen. There he would spend the rest of his internship peeling fruit and making salads.

“I felt like a manufacturing machine,” Tuason was quoted as saying.  “I knew it was going to be hard work — I was expecting that.  But I was at least expecting to learn something from it.”

Based on the complaint, Terranea’s actions allegedly violated federal human trafficking laws that are against fraudulent recruiting or hiring foreign workers under false pretenses.

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Jessie Burns, a representative of the resort, called the complaints and allegations baseless, noting that over 160 students have benefited from the program since 2011. Burns claimed that some of the former students even successfully opened their own restaurants or became chefs after completing the internship at Terrenea.

Terranea is not new to controversies. Earlier in 2017, the resort was embroiled in a class-action lawsuit for denying meal and rest breaks, failing to pay for full hours worked, and failing to reimburse kitchen supplies. In 2011, it was forced to settle a $1.1 million class-action lawsuit for allegedly not paying overtime and minimum wages as required by law.

Feature Image via Instagram / terranearesort

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