AFT Files Suit on Behalf of Exploited Filipino Teachers

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Hundreds of Filipino guest workers lured to teach in Louisiana public schools were cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars and forced into exploitative contracts by an international trafficking ring run by labor contractors, according to a class action lawsuit filed on Aug. 5 by the AFT and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 350 Filipino teachers working in Louisiana under the federal H-1B guest-worker program. It accuses officials from two labor contractors—Universal Placement International, based in Los Angeles, and its sister organization, Manila-based PARS International Placement Agency—of human trafficking, racketeering and fraud. The suit also names as defendants the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, school district officials and California lawyer Robert Silverman.

"These teachers have been victimized in ways reminiscent of the worst abuses students learn about in history class: labor contracts signed under duress and arrangements that remind us of indentured servitude," says AFT president Randi Weingarten. "The goal of this lawsuit is to put an end to this exploitation, which should have no place in 21st-century America."

CNN featured a report by Soledad O'Brien on the lawsuit.

SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer, author of the 2007 report Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, says it is clear that the very structure of the program lends itself to pervasive worker abuse. "The outrageous conduct by the companies that recruited these teachers and those who assisted them in carrying out their scheme is part of a larger pattern of exploitation that we've documented in guest-worker programs," she says.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Included as defendants are Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro, owner and president of Universal; Hothello "Jack" Navarro, a director at Universal; and Emilio V. Villarba, a representative of PARS.

According to a recent report by the AFT, the number of teachers brought to the United States on H-1B guestworker visas increased by nearly 30 percent between 2002 and 2006, from 14,943 to 19,393. Texas, New York, California, Maryland and Louisiana are the states with the largest number of teachers recruited from outside America, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"The practices described in this lawsuit are disgusting, unacceptable and, frankly, un-American. We are very pleased to have the SPLC and the Covington & Burling law firm as partners in the pursuit of justice for these teachers and to put an end to these abuses," says Louisiana Federation of Teachers president Steve Monaghan.

About 200 of the teachers were assigned to the East Baton Rouge school system; others were spread among the Caddo Public School District, the Jefferson Parish Public School System, the Louisiana Recovery School District and other school systems in Louisiana. Only the East Baton Rouge district was named as a defendant.

The Filipino teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 after each paid about $16,000, several times the average household income in the Philippines, to obtain the jobs. The H-1B guest-worker program, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, permits foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years.

Nearly all the teachers for whom papers were filed in the lawsuit had to borrow money to pay the recruiting fees; the recruiters referred them to private lenders who charged 3 to 5 percent interest per month. Teachers were forced to pay these exorbitant fees because they had already made substantial financial investments that would not be returned and because the recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until they paid. The teachers also were forced to sign away an additional 10 percent of the salaries they would earn during their second year of teaching.

Teachers who resisted signing the contracts were threatened with being deported and losing the thousands they had already paid. The recruiters also charged fees for arranging housing, which was substandard, and threatened teachers who complained or sought to move to a new location.

Ingrid Cruz, one of the teachers, says she and the other teachers were deceived into selling property, resigning from jobs, borrowing money and leaving behind children and friends in search of a more secure future. "We were herded into a path, a slowly constricting path, where the moment you feel the suspicion that something is not right, you're already way past the point of no return," Cruz says.

Under the guest-worker program, workers facing exploitation generally must either continue working for the employer that brought them to the United States or return home. Because they often are left deeply in debt from exorbitant recruiting fees, they typically have little choice but to remain on the job. [Joint press release from the AFT, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center]

August 5, 2010