New York cafe owner accused of abusing Thai, foreign workers

New York cafe owner accused of abusing Thai, foreign workers

An aerial view of Shelter Island, New York. (Photo: Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce)
An aerial view of Shelter Island, New York. (Photo: Shelter Island Chamber of Commerce)

NEW YORK - The owner of a popular cafe on Shelter Island, New York, was accused in a lawsuit of abusing employees who worked for her under a summer visa program for foreign students in the United States.

Marie Eiffel sexually abused and exploited employees who worked in her Marie Eiffel Market, according to the lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court last week. Eight former employees who worked there in 2021 and 2022 alleged that she frequently groped them and spanked them in private, in front of other employees and in front of customers at the popular shop. 

They also allege that she withheld overtime wages and tips from them.

Reached by phone at her cafe on Friday after the complaint was filed, Eiffel said she was not aware of the suit and denied the underlying allegations in the case.

"I never abused anybody sexually," she said. "I never do that."

She did not respond to further requests for comment from Bloomberg, but she has since told the Shelter Island Reporter that she has hired an attorney.

Around 300,000 people a year come to the US on short-term J-1 visas, which are aimed at promoting cultural exchange. Interns, au pairs and summer workers fall into the J-1 category, and many end up working in vacation areas. Shelter Island is a short ferry ride from both the Hamptons and Long Island’s North Fork. 

The six women and two men who are suing were all placed with Eiffel by a nonprofit called InterExchange, to which they claim acted as their J-1 sponsor. The plaintiffs — citizens of Thailand, Malaysia, Ecuador and Colombia — are also suing InterExchange, to which they claim they paid fees, in some cases thousands of US dollars, on the promise that they would have a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" in the US. Instead, they claim they were subjected to a "nightmare".

All eight of the students say that they reported Eiffel’s alleged behaviour to InterExchange, but the company did not act on their complaints. 

InterExchange did not respond to a request for comment.

The former workers claim Eiffel groped and sometimes kissed them without consent. She also allegedly made sexually harassing, demeaning and discriminatory comments about their races and looks. According to the suit, she mocked her Asian workers’ facial features. Workers also allege that she forbade them to speak Spanish to other kitchen staff.

"Marie acted as though she believed that such egregious behaviour was funny," attorneys for the students wrote in the lawsuit.

Marie Eiffel Market occupies a dockfront location on Shelter Island’s North Ferry Road. According to its website, celebrities including Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway have been customers. In 2020, a pandemic GoFundMe drive to save the cafe raised nearly $180,000 from donors including hotelier Andre Balazs and French film star Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The case is Loh Xiao Han et al versus InterExchange, Inc, 1:23-cv-07786, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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