Verdict Concludes Federal Class-Action Case Brought
By the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Federation of Teachers
LOS ANGELES—A federal court jury late Monday ordered Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner and president, Lourdes Navarro, to pay $4.5 million to the 350 Filipino teachers they lured to teach in Louisiana public schools following Hurricane Katrina and forced into exploitive contracts after arriving in the United States through the federal guest worker program.
The verdict in the class-action lawsuit follows a two-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. The case was filed on behalf of the teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Covington & Burling law firm.
"This groundbreaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this case—labor contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude—are things that should have no place in 21st-century America."
Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, "The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated. This decision puts unscrupulous recruitment agencies on notice that human beings—regardless of citizenship status—cannot be forced into contracts that require them to pay illegal fees."
Dennis Auerbach, lead attorney on the case from Covington and Burling, praised the perseverance of the Filipino teachers. "We are very pleased with the verdict in this case and proud to have stood by these brave teachers as they finally obtained justice," he said.
Other Background Information:
The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of the H-1B guest worker program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, H-1B visas permit foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. Most teachers paid the placement service about $16,000—several times the average household income in the Philippines—to obtain their jobs.
Nearly all the teachers had to borrow money to pay the massive recruiting fees. The recruiters referred the teachers 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 investments that would not be returned. The recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until the teachers paid.
In addition to paying up-front fees, 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 sent home and losing the thousands of dollars they already had paid. Those contracts were declared illegal and unenforceable by the court as part of this case.
The federal class action lawsuit, Nunag-Tanedo, et al. v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, was filed in August 2010. More information about the case is available at www.splcenter.org.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.