WASHINGTON DC - One of America's most influential unions is taking the cudgels for Filipino teachers in Louisiana, alleged victims of a California-based placement agency that collected exorbitant fees and accused of violating federal and state laws.
The 1.4 million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT) filed this week a complaint with the US Department of Labor against recruiter Lourdes "Lulu" Navarro and Universal Placement International on behalf of about two dozen Filipino teachers.
The plight of Filipino mentors was revealed in a series of reports on ABS-CBN's Balitang America.
"The allegations, backed by the facts, show these teachers to be victims of worker abuses like the ones in our students' history books: indentured servitude, debt bondage and labor contracts signed under duress," said AFT president Randi Weingarten, in a statement posted in the AFT's website today.
ABS-CBN News first aired the sad plight of the teachers last September when Chicago-based correspondent Don Tagala reported that about 20 of the more than 150 mentors working at the East Baton Rouge public school system were terminated after only one year of their H-1B visa, instead of the usual three years.
Working for one year was barely enough for them to recoup the huge amount they allegedly paid to Navarro, leaving them with the dilemma of either trying to find other work in the US - which would violate the conditions of their H-1B visa - or go home and face a pile of debt.
The teachers reportedly paid an average of $15,000 each to Navarro as placement fees - despite the fact that Navarro already got paid by the Louisiana education department for delivering the teachers.
Louisiana reportedly paid Navarro $47,000 to recruit 20 teachers from the Philippines.
Earlier this month, two more Pinoy teachers talked to Balitang America to allege that they paid Navarro about $17,000 to land them jobs in what turned out to be non-existent teaching positions at Caddo Parish schools, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
They expressed the fear they were out of status workers and could be arrested by immigration police anytime. They landed in the Metro DC area last year to take a licensure examination and have been stranded here ever since.
In taking the cudgels for the Pinoy mentors, the AFT said they signed their contracts under duress that required payment of illegal fees.
"What makes these allegations especially heinous is that the victims are good teachers, that school districts and tax dollars are involved, and that all this is taking place in 21st-century America," Weingarten declared.
On September 30, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the AFT, filed a complaint before the Louisiana Workforce Commission on behalf of Filipino teachers in Shreveport, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
But the additional charges filed by the AFT mother organization has elevated the case to the federal level where penalties are often higher and opens the possibility the probe could be extended to the Philippines, from where the affected teachers come from.
Lawyer Arnedo Valera, executive director of the Fairfax, Virginia-based Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), said the teachers can avail of special visas given to victims and witnesses of crimes committed in the US, to protect them from possible arrest and deportation.
The ATF statement also suggested there was a wider conspiracy behind the sorry plight of the Pinoy mentors.
"Although employers - in this case the school districts that filed for the visas - are bound by federal law to match visa applicants to a job and pay them the promised salary, the complaint includes statements from two visa recipients struggling to pay back their enormous debts because they didn't receive the jobs or a refund from Universal," the statement read.
Valera had earlier told Balitang America that it was puzzling how the Filipino teachers managed to get an H-1B visa if there was no document from the schools they were supposed to go to.
The AFT complaint charged that Navarro, UPI's attorney and an unnamed East Baton Rouge school district official retaliated against an applicant who protested the "exorbitant fees".
The Louisiana complaint alleged that Navarro was convicted in 2000 for medical fraud and money laundering in California, which bars her from doing business as a private employment agency in Louisiana.
ABS-CBN News had left word with a female employee in UPI's Los Angeles head office that it was seeking an explanation from Navarro or any of the firm's officers. A woman who called the phone number refused to identify herself but denied all the allegations, claiming Navarro and UPI were victims of a "smear campaign" by "trouble-making teachers".
The AFT called for a thorough investigation and work for the return of fees taken from the teachers illegally.
"We filed this federal complaint because we want to do everything possible to end this exploitation, which is hurting good teachers and making it difficult for them to succeed in their classrooms," Weingarten averred.
He called on authorities to protect the teachers from further exploitation even as they vowed to work with the US Congress to "enact additional laws to regulate recruitment agencies and to protect teachers and other non-immigrant workers who obtain visas".
The AFT has been looking into the practice of hiring teachers from other countries and abuses that have been committed under this program.
The AFT is affiliated with the AFL-CIO international union and has over 1.4 million members from pre-Kindergarten to higher education faculty to healthcare workers. Among its most prominent members were Albert Einstein, Hubert Humphrey and several Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize laureates.