Red, White, and Wrong: Filipino Teachers Exploited in America

A jury ruled this week that a recruiting firm and its owner must pay $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers they enticed to Louisiana and forced into manipulative contracts to work in public schools.

As part of a federal guest worker program, Universal Placement International of Los Angeles (owned by Lourdes Navarro) brought the teachers to Louisiana, mainly to East Baton Rouge, from 2007 through 2009.

These teachers, who were allowed to work in the U.S. under the H-1B Department of Labor specialty occupation program, had to pay up to $16,000 for placement in teaching positions that paid approximately $40,000.

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The recruiters recommended private lenders to the teachers, and any money they borrowed came attached to huge interest rates, from three to five percent a month. The firm also charged the teachers extravagant housing fees, and they had to pay a monthly percentage of their income to Universal. Passports and visas were taken from the teachers to ensure payment, and to make sure they did not seek a new job elsewhere. If teachers refused to sign the contracts once they arrived in the States, they would not only lose thousands of dollars in placement money, but also Universal would threaten to send them home.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the workers by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP, stated that the huge fees and passport confiscation was tantamount to forced labor and human trafficking (a federal offense passed by Congress in 2000). The jury agreed that the fees were not properly represented and that the contracts were illegal, although it rejected the human trafficking claim.

"The jury sent a clear message that exploitative and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated," Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

Sadly, the abuses that led to this case are not unusual in the United States. The AFT has been working for years to gain a better understanding of how many teachers who are trained overseas (there are more than 20,000 working here on visas) are being forced into unfair and even abusive labor situations.

In 2009, they published a report called "Importing Educators: Causes and Consequences of International Teacher Recruitment." In this report, the authors raised red flags on the for-profits recruiting firms that work with school districts to bring in people from overseas. And, most troubling, the report cited example after example of teachers who, after being recruited by ruthless firms, have languished in the U.S. working in our schools under dire conditions to stay afloat. Yet, thanks to teacher shortages and an unwillingness of American teachers to venture into often-dangerous urban schools, the international recruit is an easy moneymaker for unscrupulous labor firms. The report explains:

While these factors can be powerful motivators themselves, there is an additional force accelerating teacher migration trends: profit-driven recruitment agencies. Recruiters have a financial interest in making the “pull” factors seem as tempting as possible and may mislead teachers by encouraging inflated and inaccurate expectations about life in a country like the United States.

Potential recruits may learn, for instance, of the comparatively high salaries they could earn in the United States, but receive no information about income tax rates or the cost of living. They may also make their decisions to migrate without ever learning about the very different challenges of teaching in American schools. When recruiters aggressively attempt to persuade teachers of the benefits of working in the “land of milk and honey,” they become a pull factor unto themselves. This is a dangerous dynamic that leaves teachers vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Much stricter monitoring of the hiring and treatment of noncitizen teachers on the local, state and federal levels is desperately needed, according to the AFT. They suggest three main changes:

Developing, adopting and enforcing ethical standards for the international recruitment of teachers Improving access to the government data necessary to track and study international hiring trends in education; and Fostering international cooperation to protect migrant workers and mitigate any negative impact of teacher migration in their home countries.

“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 in a statement. “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.”

Related Stories on TakePart:

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Op-Ed: For First-Year Teachers, It’s Sink or Swim

Faces of Human Trafficking: A Gallery of Forced, Slave and Child Labor

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.