Terranea, the ritzy seaside resort in Palos Verdes Peninsula, is being accused of taking advantage of foreign interns and violating State Department regulations for J-1 cultural and educational visa exchange, according to a report by the LA Times.
In a lawsuit filed by Unite Here, a local hotel worker’s union, a couple from India is seeking reimbursement for their expenses and an investigation into the international internship program that draws workers from the Philippines, India, and Malaysia. The lawsuit also alleges human trafficking and labor law violations against Terranea. The program was initially set up to allow training and learning opportunities for overseas workers, who paid to get into the year-long program with the hopes of gaining meaningful culinary experience across the resort’s various kitchens.
Instead, the complaint alleges that the interns “performed the same routine tasks as ordinary workers, but pay large placement fees and don’t receive raises or benefits.” The couple who filed the complaint, Falak Rashid and his fiance Wahid Rahman, claim that they spent a combined $15,000 on airfare, visas, and placement fees to enter the program. They claim that they worked at the resort for less than two months before quitting and returning home to Kolkata, India, with $11,000 in debt against their names.
The complaint also alleges that the resort essentially replaced its entry-level employees with interns from this international program, with 45 workers employed by 2017. One longtime cook estimates that 60% of full-time entry-level positions are filled with interns, many of whom came in under the exchange program.
According to the LA Times article, the resort made promotional videos and set up Skype calls with prospective interns seeking to join the one-year program, and the prospects were promised supervised training across a variety of cuisines. According the Rashid and Rahman’s complaint, they were left to find their own housing, kitchen supplies, and shoes upon landing in Los Angeles.
The Unite Here complaint states that Terranea’s actions appears to violate federal human trafficking laws that prohibit fraudulent recruiting or hiring foreign workers under false pretenses. Attorney Jeremy Blasi, who represents Unite Here, tells the LA Times that this isn’t a typical human trafficking case, but that “there are elements of the law that are meant to protect workers from this kind of abuse.”
The Times article quotes a spokesperson for the resort, Jessie Burns, who called the complaints and allegations baseless, saying Terranea has offered internships since 2011, with more than 160 students completing the program. Burns even said some of the former students went on to open their own restaurants, or become chefs at other restaurants and resorts.
Terrenea was caught in a class-action lawsuit earlier this year for denying meal and rest breaks, failing to pay for full hours worked, and failing to reimburse kitchen supplies. Terranea also settled a $1.1 million class action lawsuit in 2011 that contended the resort wasn’t paying overtime and minimum wages as required by law.