'Pinoy teachers in Louisiana knew what they were getting into'

by Rodney J. Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Apr 25 2010 01:21 PM | Updated as of Apr 27 2010 06:40 PM

WASHINGTON D.C. – The recruitment agency caught in a bitter contract dispute with about 360 Filipino teachers in Louisiana insisted that it disclosed all the conditions, including fees it had to pay, even before they signed their contracts to work in the United States.

Louisiana Administrative Judge Shelley Dick earlier found Los Angeles-based Universal Placement International (UPI) liable for operating without a license, and violation of least 5 state labor laws for collecting various fees from the Filipino teachers.

UPI is operated by Filipino-American businesswoman Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro from its headquarters in Los Angeles, California. She had previously declined requests for comment.

“It’s not that we didn’t want to air our side. We were instructed by our lawyers not to talk,” a female UPI executive, who asked not to be identified, told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview.

UPI furnished ABS-CBN News with a written statement that aimed to refute the accusations against the recruitment firm.

Recruiter blames union for woes

It countered that the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and its parent organization, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), were secretly fomenting the dispute to stop foreign teachers from landing jobs in the US.

“They openly fought against the placement of foreign teachers in Caddo Parish. When they lost that battle, the Union (LFT) has now attacked Universal Placement by filing a false and defamatory letter complaint,” the statement read.

The AFT, which has 1.4 million members across the country, provided the lawyers for Filipino teachers because they could not afford them (some Filipino teachers hold executive positions in some of the federation’s 43 state affiliates).

“Universal provides a legal and lawful service to the school district and the teacher. For this service they expect to earn a fee. The fee is based upon a contract provided to the teacher and signed by the teacher. The fee is comparable to any other placement fee charged by any other company,” UPI explained.

“While a teacher can remain in the US for six years on an H-1B visa…the contract between the teacher and Universal is for only two years... On average, the two-year fee for this will total $8,000-$10,000 based upon the amount earned by the teacher,” the statement said.

Under their contracts, the teachers were obligated to pay 10% of their salaries to UPI (in addition to fees paid), for 2 years starting on the 2nd year of their employment. Teachers in Louisiana reportedly earn from $45,000 to $60,000 a year.

“This is a very small price to live and work in America,” the UPI statement declared, criticizing the LFT and AFT for labeling their fees as excessive.

Union: decision a warning vs abusive recruiters

But Randi Weingarten, AFT president, clearly signaled they will continue supporting the Filipino teachers.

“This decision is a victory for teachers and for fundamental human rights. We applaud the Filipino teachers themselves, who showed great courage in asserting their rights, banding together and challenging a company that sought to oppress them through fraud, threats and intimidation,” she averred.

“We also applaud the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and our local affiliates in Louisiana, who stood with – and stood up for – these teachers. The decision should give pause to other companies who would consider exploiting teachers or other workers,” Weingarten stressed.

She acknowledged the administrative court decision was just the start of a possibly protracted legal battle with UPI.

“With this first legal hurdle cleared, we are thrilled that the teachers can focus all their attention on what they love and what they are good at – teaching students,” the AFT chief added.

Fines, jail or both

The Louisiana labor tribunal ordered UPI to refund at least $1.8 million in “marketing fees” collected from the teachers.

The Filipino teachers allegedly paid at least $15,000 each to UPI and PARS. But in the court filings, it was estimated the teachers paid $5,000 each in “marketing fees.”

Judge Shelley Dick ordered UPI to refund the “placement fees” but did not put a precise dollar amount. “Scrutiny of these fees is not within the regulatory authority of this Commission,” the magistrate declared.

UPI was also directed to pay litigation expenses and a $500 fine for operating without a license in Louisiana.

The recruitment agency could face criminal prosecution (a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or 6 months imprisonment, or both) for operating without a license, and a possible federal indictment for compelling teachers to pay for their visa processing fees.

As the case grinds through the US justice system, the controversy merely highlights the travails of Filipino teachers who, put off by the lack of opportunities back home, are ready to live by the knife’s edge just to get a slice of the “American dream.”