Filipino Teachers Victims of Human Trafficking

August 18, 2010

While members of the partisan U.S. Congress fight amongst themselves and devote hours to campaigning each day, thousands of foreign workers in the U.S. and its territories are suffering as victims of human trafficking at the hands of unscrupulous recruiters and labor contractors. The U.S. Congress and the U.S. DoJ have done far too little to address the exploitation of foreign workers and victims of human trafficking on U.S. soil.

There has been an urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform for decades, but never has the need been so critical as it is today. In just the last few years there has been an explosion of abuse and exploitation of foreign workers, combined with an ever growing  hostile and racist attitude towards the people who makeup our country's much-needed foreign workforce. A campaign of hate against migrant workers and immigrants has been championed by members of the Tea Party, hate radio talk show show hosts, and "conservative" political propagandists, including members of the U.S. Congress, as well as local and state officials. The anti-immigrant and unconstitutional CNMI and Arizona laws, and the handful of proposed copy cat laws that are springing up in states like Florida testify to the anti-immigrant sentiment that is poisoning the United States and its territories.

Still, there may be a glimmer of hope for some of the abused foreign workers. On August 5, 2010 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the law firm of Covington and Burling LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of 350 Filipino teachers who were brought to Louisiana under HB-1 visas and kept as indentured servants.

The defendants in the Louisiana case are two recruiting companies and some Louisiana school officials who are being accused of human trafficking, racketeering, and fraud.  The school officials  "helped to keep the teachers in indentured servitude," according to an SPLC press release.

From the SPLC website:
“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,” said Ingrid Cruz, one of the Filipino teachers.

In other words, they were conned. And the con continues because currently there are very few standards that govern the way teachers are recruited from abroad. The problem goes beyond criminal exploitation. Many of these teachers were recruited to fill positions at hard-to-staff U.S. schools. Once they arrived they were often thrown into situations where they faced stressful language and cultural barriers. Many teachers were put in these untenable situations with no training or mentoring.

The abuses in Louisiana raise all kinds of troubling issues. If even highly educated people can be exploited this readily under our guest worker laws, imagine what is happening to those who are not as educated and not as willing to fight back? And if school districts are so eager to offload their responsibilities as employers, what does that say about how they handle their responsibilities toward students?

Bringing qualified immigrant teachers to the United States can be very helpful. These teachers often possess language or professional skills that are in short supply. And foreign teachers can expose U.S. students to a rich variety of cultural views. But the current system for bringing these teachers into the country corrupts school administrators and frustrates the education process. And as SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer put it, it is a rip-off waiting to happen. “It’s clear,” she says, “that the very structure of the program lends itself to pervasive worker abuse.”
The 95-page complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The complaint states:
Over the past three school years, more than 350 highly-skilled Filipino teachers have been trafficked into Louisiana through the federal government’s H-1B “specialty occupation” visa program to serve as teachers in public schools. The teachers were systematically defrauded and exploited in the recruitment and hiring process in the Philippines by Defendants, who utilized the promise of a unique opportunity to teach in Louisiana to ensnare teachers in a psychologically coercive and financially ruinous trafficking scheme that subjected the teachers to exorbitant debt and forced labor. Once in the United States, the teachers were further abused and exploited by Defendants, who used a variety of coercive tactics, including abuse of legal process, isolation and segregation, and threats of deportation, to attempt to control the teachers’ actions. When the teachers organized collectively for better conditions, they were victims of severe retaliation.
The complaint tells the story of the unscrupulous recruiter,  convicted criminal Lourdes (Lulu) Navarro from the California-based Universal Placement International, Inc. who worked with the PARS International Placement Agency in Quezon City, Philippines to recruit the teachers.  The recruiters charged between $5,000 and $5,500 in initial recruitment fees for the teaching positions.  They then  charged an additional staggering fee of $16,000 for airfare and the chance to work as a teacher in the U.S. The teachers had already paid the initial fee that the recruiters refused to refund and could not afford to back out from paying the second fee according to the complaint. The recruiter defendants referred the teachers to unscrupulous lenders that charged outrageous interest fees in  order that they could pay all the fees.

The lawsuit states that once in the states, the recruiter defendants "orchestrated a system of psychological coercion and intimidation to exert continued control over the teachers, including: filing lawsuits against teachers, who complained publicly; isolating teachers from other Filipinos; and threatening deportation or non-renewal of teacher visas."

The lawsuit also alleges that the employer defendants "were knowing beneficiaries of the illegal human trafficking scheme perpetrated by Recruiter Defendants, knew or should have known of the scheme, and aided and abetted the scheme by taking steps to ensure its success." From the lawsuit:
Employer Defendants became aware early on of the unconscionable fees being charged, and took steps to ensure the success of Recruiter Defendants’ scheme, including submitting false letters to federal immigration officials at the request of the Recruiter Defendants, and reporting to Recruiter Defendants those teachers who voiced complaints about the process or who attempted to circumvent the Recruiter Defendants by applying directly to EBRPSB for employment.
This story sounds all too familiar to advocates like myself, and to those who have witnessed the similar suffering and abuse of  tens of thousands of foreign workers in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).  This scenario has been repeated over and over and over for decades in the CNMI affecting a wide range of categories of recruited foreign workers from security guards to waitresses, and yes, including Filipino teachers.

For three decades, under the CNMI's unjust guest worker program, only a small number of scammed or abused CNMI foreign workers have been the lucky recipients of any help from the US DoJ, US DoL, human or civil rights organizations, or even private law firms.   Most of the abused workers were returned to their host countries without ever receiving their back wages or justice; some continue to struggle on in the CNMI hoping to collect the money owed to them from their former cheating employers or to seek justice for a variety of abuses.

I hope that this lawsuit is successful and the victims receive justice and compensation.  Hopefully too, the illegal recruiters and others involved in this scheme end up behind bars.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Green cards are not enough. Reparations are needed.

the teacher said...

This is Saipan garment strategy applied to the education industry. I would suspect it happens to farmers, factory workers, nurses, and others as well. This is terrible and the other targets are 350 US citizens remain emempoyed, furthering the US unemployment national disaster. The CNMI remittances have increasing in a sharply falling economy and represent 50% of the budget, and four times the money for public schools. This doesn't add up and must be stopped.

Wendy said...

Hi Ron

Yes, while 350 US teachers could have filled the jobs, the truth is these schools/districts could not recruit or retain the needed US teachers. These are particularly difficult teaching assignments. US teachers are routinely underpaid and are exclusively and unfairly blamed for students' failures, while hundreds of other circumstances that contribute to a child's academic success are overlooked (like parental involvement, economic conditions, medical conditions, attendance, discipline, effort, etc.) More college students are steering away from choosing a career as teachers because they know they will earn more in other career fields, and they will also be treated as professionals and with respect.

About remittances - (assuming you mean the money that is sent from the CNMI to foreign countries...) Where a person spends his /her money is a personal choice and a constitutional right. You can't tell a foreign worker (or anyone) not to support their families who live off-island or even whether they should purchase anything locally as opposed to over the internet. Instead of lamenting the loss of money, which does not rightfully belong to the CNMI in the first place, the CNMI may want to start looking at its amazing assets, most notably its physical beauty, and focus on tourism. It could reap in huge dollars if the abandoned buildings were razed, the prostitution, drug trafficking, and political corruption were stopped.

Anonymous said...

I might be reading this wrong, but first you talked about how the Arizona laws and others are "poisioning" the US and it's territories. You have to agree that the bills are intended to catch people that are in the US illegally. Then, you talk about the plight of the these teachers that are in the US legally, albeit being scammed.
Now I am not saying they are contradictory, but it's like saying "Leave the illegals alone and stop abusing the legals". How about the abuse of the illegals? I know you don't support that, and neither do I, but practically there needs to be reform. These scams and lack of any type of status of illegals has it root in one thing: inaction. The Arizona law, which is a bit of tempest in a teapot since they can get their status at the jail (that's why Warden Joe just shruggs it off)will at least bring the converstation out in the open. Probably the current illegals will get some type of status (my guess Guest Worker), but this would not happen now if Arizona or some State pushed it. The current situation must change, so the "poisoning" you are talking about is happening right now and will continue to happen, and probably get worse, until the Feds get their act together.

Anonymous said...

The real problem is math and science teachers earn the same as english and art teachers. Engineers earn 60K+ straight out of their undergraduate degrees and are reluctant to work as teachers. Instead of raising the salaries of math and science departments to attract U.S. workers, schools keep the salaries of all teachers the same and recruit from abroad.

I had a friend working in Lousiana for "teach for america" and they told me that Lousiana students were the worst in the nation. This lawsuit is probably about the workers not wanting to work in Lousiana any longer, but were stuck with an outrageous breach of contract fee, so they filed this lawsuit so they could work in California for higher wages and to be closer to family members.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 9:30

The point is this-WE NEED IMMIGRATION REFORM NOW!

Because of:
illegal recruitment
human trafficking
cheating of foreign workers
racist laws that conflict with federal laws and
a broken system that does not work for employees, employers or our country

Anonymous said...

It is good we are finally coming to the realization that this problem is not unique to the CNMI and, indeed, Saipan was not the abuse hotspot portrayed by the most avid proponents of the CNRA.

In fact, the former CNMI guest worker program is likely to serve as a model for the new nationwide Contract Worker system, which is why the CW-visa regs are taking so long.

It is time we come to the realization that an immigrant-based system for unskilled workers being granted a pathway to citizenship is not sustainable, and in fact is one of the root causes of oppression and poverty in the third world.

True empowerment of our brothers and sisters suggests that we allow and encourage these workers to return home when their services are no longer needed, so they can return to enrich their homelands. The imperialist, colonialist era is past when the U.S. can greedily claim the worldwide best of the "tired and poor" with strong work ethics, leaving the sender nations bereft of their talents.

It is time to halt the cycle of abuses by recruiters worldwide, and that must start with the realization that guest worker jobs are non-immigrant positions.

In the modern era, jet planes fly in both directions, and we must consider ourselves citizens of the world.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 12:45

"True empowerment of our brothers and sisters suggests that we allow and encourage these workers to return home when their services are no longer needed, so they can return to enrich their homelands. The imperialist, colonialist era is past when the U.S. can greedily claim the worldwide best of the "tired and poor" with strong work ethics, leaving the sender nations bereft of their talents." Yes, once again the attitude that foreigners are commodities to serve the richer countries needs and then be tossed aside. If another is needed get a new one. This train of thought shows extreme disrespect and dehumanization of the foreign workers. There is nothing empowering about being used -nothing. If a foreign worker WANTS to return home and use his/her skills, wonderful. If a foreign worker chooses to settle in the new land, wonderful. If the host countries had jobs, the foreigner workers would most likely not be traveling around the world to leave their families and countries. Richer nations may want to step up and help repair broken economies and build strong ones in poorer nations.

"It is time to halt the cycle of abuses by recruiters worldwide, and that must start with the realization that guest worker jobs are non-immigrant positions."

Illegal recruitment does not have anything to do with present or future status. Yes, it is far beyond time to stop recruitment abuses. I, for one, have been repeating that mantra for three decades. Recruitment abuses occur because a broken system allows greed, manipulation and dehumanization of people.

"In the modern era, jet planes fly in both directions, and we must consider ourselves citizens of the world." Yes, we are citizens of the world. We should embrace the foreigners who come to our soil legally. Those who are recruited and needed to fill jobs should have the option to stay.

I thought you stopped commenting here, but I see you just dropped the byline to become anonymous like many of the others who dare not attach a name to their statements.

Anonymous said...

You are 100% right that people are not commodities.

That is why it is so important that we establish a holistic international labor environment that does not devalue and diminish the sending nations and instead encourages people to return home as demand for services changes. People must be free to go back home, with the receiving nations providing free passage if necessary.

Mabuyhay Pilipinas!

Jave Pauelas said...

Acquiring a good teaching paying job in the State of Louisiana, applying for a loan and getting approve and money transferred to your bank account to pay legal, immigration, and placements fees, and then suing your recruiters to return all the legal fees, and suing your own employer (schools) who petitioned you and gave up to 60k salary, then suing your school for 5 million dollars with the union AFT/LFT, is absolutely PRICELESS!

We should teach our children, students, families, and friend how to skid from financial responsibilities by suing their recruiters and employers (school) to hide our financial obligations. We would like to thank Ingrid Cruz (pres.FEFL) and union (AFT/LFT) for doing a great job of dragging other Filipino teacher's name in the lawsuit without their consent to gain momentum. WOW, WOW.. WE SHOULD DEFINITELY PRAISE THIS group. WE LOVE YOU.