21 Oct 2010

Former Scientology film production employees allege labor violations

The Press-Enterprise March 25, 2009

By MICHAEL PERRAULT | The Press-Enterprise

Two former employees who worked more than a decade at the Church of Scientology's Golden Era Productions enclave near Hemet have filed lawsuits alleging the church violated federal and state labor laws and engaged in human trafficking.

Church of Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis called the lawsuits "utterly meritless," noting that hundreds of staff would boast about working conditions at the nearly 700-acre compound in Gilman Hot Springs.

"Working conditions at Gold Base are nothing short of spectacular," Davis said.

In separate lawsuits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in time to meet a four-year statute of limitations, husband and wife Marc and Claire Headley claim they were paid less than 50 cents an hour and forced to work more than 100 hours a week. They claim they never received overtime pay or meal breaks and were required to sign documents under duress acknowledging they had forfeited their rights.

Davis said he could not discuss specifics of the lawsuits. But he said staff members agree to work on a "volunteer basis" and receive weekly stipends, with the Church covering all living, medical, dental and other expenses.

"As members of the religious order called the Sea Organization, we have dedicated our lives to the service of the Scientology religion," Davis said. "You can dedicate all of your time and efforts to your job without having to worry about paying your bills, cooking dinner, paying property taxes or this and that."

Barry Van Sickle, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Headleys, said the church must adhere to state and federal labor laws, including paying minimum wage, overtime and allowing proper breaks. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious entities and nonprofits must abide by labor laws, including those regulating wages and employing minors.

Van Sickle anticipates it could be 18 months before the case goes to trial.

Claire Headley, now of Los Angeles, worked from 1991 to 2005 at Golden Era Productions. She contends she worked "long, hard hours for illegal wages, was forced to have (two) abortions to keep her job and was subjected to violations of personal rights and liberties for the purpose of obtaining forced labor.

"Church of Scientology International enslaves its employees through coercion, deceit, fear of reprisal, intimidation, forced signatures on oppressive documents and enforced poverty," the suit states.

Davis said he and other members of the Sea Organization religious order, including the Headleys, enter freely into the agreements. There is no expectation of being paid minimum wage, he said, and workers get days off and vacation time.

"Here's the thing that's so disingenuous about (the lawsuits)," Davis said. "When you join the Sea Organization, you know you are voluntarily signing up and becoming a part of a highly dedicated, highly disciplined, very regulated lifestyle as part of a religious order. It's tough. It's not meant to be easy."

Claire Headley signed an employment contract at 14 and eventually worked as an office assistant to David Miscavige, a longtime church leader, Van Sickle said.

Marc Headley worked from 1989 to 2005 on film and promotional materials at Golden Era Productions, commonly called Gold Base. He claims he was not paid minimum wage and often worked more than 100-hour, seven-day weeks without overtime. He calculated his pay at about 39 cents an hour. He said he was reluctant to leave because his mother and sister were active church members.

Marc Headley said in the lawsuit that when he ended his employment he was threatened with a "freeloader debt" of about $86,000, "used to intimidate and coerce employees into continuing to work under unlawful conditions."

The Headleys are seeking payment of minimum wage, overtime and other remedies.

Davis said hundreds of staff at Golden Era Productions produce as much as 300 hours of broadcast footage per week from around the world, and other materials and products. Many staff members have worked and lived at the compound for 25 years.

"We work, let me tell you, we work," Davis said. "But to complain about one's work schedule or how one's tenure went as a member would be kind of like being a Jesuit priest, leaving the order and complaining that I had to wear a robe every day, that I had to be celibate, that I had to read the Bible and do whatever the senior person in the Jesuit order said I had to do."

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