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Union claims Filipino teachers held in 'virtual servitude' in Louisiana
Updated 10/1/2009 6:33 PM | Comments 55 | Recommend 10 E-mail | Save | Print | Reprints & Permissions |
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By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
Unions representing teachers in Louisiana have filed a complaint with state authorities alleging that a Los Angeles recruiting firm broke the law by holding more than 350 Filipino teachers in "virtual servitude" in order to hold onto their jobs in five Louisiana parish school systems, including New Orleans' Recovery School District.
The complaint, filed Wednesday by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), alleges that Universal Placement International charged Filipino nationals about $15,000 apiece to get jobs â€” more than 40% of some new teachers' salaries in a few Louisiana parishes â€” and required that they pay 10% of their monthly salary for two years to keep them.
The two unions want the firm to repay the fees to teachers and want the state to invalidate Universal's contracts and prosecute its officials.
The new filing comes less than three weeks after the AFT issued a report saying that about 19,000 teachers were working in the USA on temporary visas in 2007 â€” a growing recruitment trend as schools struggle to hire enough highly qualified teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as math, science, foreign languages and special education. AFT says the field is largely unregulated and suffers from "widespread and egregious" abuses of migrant teachers.
"This is the kind of exploitation that we have read (about) in history books and taught our students â€” the fact that teachers would be subject to it in the United States in the 21st century is just totally and completely immoral," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. She notes that the allegations still have to be investigated, but says that, if true, it'd be "mind-blowing that a recruiter could actually get away with this. Even if it was an isolated incident, it would be horrible, but my hunch right now is that it's not isolated."
In Louisiana, many of the Filipino teachers told union investigators that they were required to rent housing provided by Universal, which sublet apartments at a profit. The complaint also alleges that Universal threatened to "take them back to the airport for a return flight to the Philippines" if teachers questioned the contract terms.
The state union's president, Steve Monaghan, said in a statement issued Thursday that he believes the complaint, filed with the state Workforce Commission and attorney general, will prompt "other migrant educators" to come forward with their own complaints of mistreatment.
Calls to Universal seeking comment were not immediately returned.
The complaint also alleges that Universal violated Louisiana law by charging workers before they drew their first paycheck and by not maintaining an office in the state. It also violated federal law, the union says, by charging teachers some $6,600 in H-1B visa application fees, which employers are obligated to pay.
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Suit alleges exploitation of Filipino teachers in La.
Enlarge By Cheryl Gerber, for USA TODAY
Ingrid Cruz, a robotics teacher in Baton Rouge, is among those from the Pholippines.
By Mike Hasten, Gannett
BATON ROUGE â€” Hundreds of Filipino teachers recruited to teach in Louisiana schools were thrust into massive debt, unsavory living conditions and, in effect, indentured servitude, an attorney charges in a class action lawsuit to be filed today.
About 350 teachers were recruited through a placement service for Filipinos, which the lawsuit says charged them exorbitant application fees and transportation and housing costs and demanded up to 30% of their salaries their first two years.
"It was close to slavery," said Mary Bauer, lead attorney in the lawsuit set to be filed in federal court in Los Angeles by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers and the law firm Covington & Burling. "There was fraud on a number of levels here."
Filipino teachers began arriving in Louisiana in 2007. They were granted visas through the H-1B "guest worker" program, administered by the Department of Labor, which permits foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States. Each of the Filipino teachers has specific skills sought by school systems.
The lawsuit charges racketeering, human trafficking, extortion and mail and wire fraud by two employment agencies â€” Universal Placement International (UPI), based in Los Angeles, and a related company, PARS International Placement Agency of Manila. Lourdes "LuLu" Navarro, owner of UPI, and her husband, Hothello "Jack" Navarro, are named defendants, along with LuLu Navarro's brother, Emilio Villarba, a principal operator of PARS.
It also names three former or current East Baton Rouge Parish school system employees who helped recruit Filipino teachers.
The Navarros' attorney, California lawyer Robert Silverman, denied all allegations, saying they had been dismissed previously by federal immigration agencies.
"I am not aware of anyone who has forced any teacher to do anything against their free will," Silverman said in a statement.
Attempts to contact the former and current superintendents of East Baton Rouge Parish on Wednesday were unsuccessful. Chris Trahan, communications director for the school system, said staff attorneys were "still looking over" the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends the teachers came to Louisiana with huge debts, were limited to working only for the employer designated by UPI, were required to live in crowded housing arranged by the company and were prevented from bringing any family members with them.
"It was a recipe for abuse," Bauer said, and anytime a Filipino teacher complained, Navarro threatened lawsuits and deportation.
"There's a lot more to it than the money," said Mai Ri, a Baton Rouge teacher. "It's being free from bondage and harassment."
Contributing: Mike Hasten reports for Gannett's Baton Rouge (La.) bureau
Latest CNN video report:
Well, well, well... the plaintiffs are finally telling the truth for once... They said that the Allegation and/or complaint on human trafficking, racketeering, wire fraud, and other related activity did 'NOT HAPPEN!' They said that they were never threaten by the school board, recruiter, superintended, UPI, lawyer who processed their legal documents, and other key defendants. Why you say, because they were 'Under Oath' and they have to tell the truth. According to their testimony, they were threaten by the school board because some of them only have a one (1) H1B extension instead of 3. They are in debt bondage they said cause they have pay their choice of attorney on a yearly basis which around 700.00 dollars every year. This is so lame... This Class Action lawsuit is comical.
[quote="momopi"][img]http://i.usatoday.net/news/_photos/2010 ... -large.jpg[/img]
The Louisiana Filipino teachers said that the (class action lawsuit) allegation and/or complaint on human trafficking, racketeering, wire fraud, and other related activity did 'NOT HAPPEN!'