The 350 Filipino teachers who were lured into teaching in Louisiana public schools will finally receive around $2,200 each from a 2012 federal class action lawsuit.
“This is a bittersweet ending to a sad story of exploitation,” said Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) President Larry Carter in a news release on October 25. “While these teachers can never be properly compensated for their suffering, we have at least validated the rule of law and sent a strong message to those who would profit from such human trafficking.”
The money being distributed to the 350 Filipino teachers comes from assets seized from the agency’s owner.
“The teachers are now splitting the proceeds from that sale,” Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorney Jim Knoepp told the Associated Press in an email.
Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner and president Lourdes Navarro, were sued in August of 2010 by the Louisiana Workforce Commission and were ordered to repay the Filipino teachers an estimated $1.8 million in illegally charged placement fees, a $500 fine, and $7,500 in attorney fees.
The lawsuit, titled Nunag Taneda v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, accused Navaro of orchestrating a “psychologically coercive and financially ruinous trafficking scheme that subjected the teachers to exorbitant debt and forced labor.”
Teachers were said to have borrowed as much as $16,000 for fees to pay the agency before leaving the Philippines. Selected teachers were asked to quickly pay a $5,000 to $5,500 recruitment fee in cash — an investment “more than one and a half times the average annual household income in the Philippines,” as stated in the complaint.
Once in the U.S., the teachers were further required by contract to pay a percentage of their monthly income to the agency. They were also referred to private lenders who charged three to five percent interest per month. Recruiters often confiscated passports and visas of the teachers until paid.
After a two-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles in 2012, Navarro was ordered to pay the damages.
Representing the teachers were SPLC, LFT, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP.
“The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated,” said SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer following the court decision. “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.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten called the verdict “groundbreaking” in affirming equality for all teachers, “regardless of what country they may come from.”
“The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is not proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry,” said Weingarten. “The practice 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.”
SPLC said the teachers first came to the U.S. starting in 2007 as part of the popular H-1B guestworker program under the U.S. Department of Labor. The H-1B has been a common track for certain skilled foreign nationals to work in the United States for up to six years, with renewal after three years. They were then hired in Caddo Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, Jefferson Parish and the State Recovery School District in New Orleans.