05/25/2011

Judge Delivers Groundbreaking Decision in SPLC Lawsuit on Behalf of Trafficked Teachers

Earlier this month, a federal judge handed down a major decision in one of our cases, establishing a new precedent in protecting victims of human trafficking. This decision marks the first time a court has interpreted the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) with the breadth Congress intended.

Up until now, this law has been applied only to cases involving laborers. Our case involves professionals – teachers who were brought to the U.S. under the federal H-1B guestworker program to work in Louisiana public schools.

Just like the common laborers who come as guestworkers to pick onions, pack tomatoes or plant pine seedlings, these teachers arrived with hopes and dreams of a better life for themselves and their families. As this case demonstrates, their vulnerability to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous labor recruiters and employers within the guestworker program is no different either.

Our lawsuit, on behalf of more than 350 Filipino teachers, details accusations of human trafficking, racketeering and fraud against officials of two labor contractors – Universal Placement International, based in Los Angeles, and its sister organization, Manila-based PARS International Placement Agency. The suit also names the East Baton Rouge Public School Board, several school district officials and a California lawyer, Robert Silverman, based on their roles in the fraudulent trafficking scheme.

The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of the H-1B guestworker program, which is administered by the Department of Labor and permits foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for a period of up to six years. Each teacher paid about $16,000, several times the average household income in the Philippines, in order to obtain their jobs. After they had made substantial investments, they were forced to pay additional fees, and the recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until they paid. They were forced to sign away an additional 10 percent of the salaries they would earn during their second year of teaching. Teachers who resisted signing the contracts were threatened with being sent home and losing the thousands they had already paid.

We've seen this type of fraud – exorbitant fees, threats, coercion, confiscation of documents – repeatedly in the H-2 guestworker program, under which low-skilled laborers are recruited to work on farms and tree plantations, in nurseries and in other industries. So, it's appropriate – and essential – that professionals, as well as laborers, be protected under the TVPA. This ruling will go a long way toward empowering workers to hold accountable those who profit by defrauding these vulnerable workers.

The lawsuit, Nunag Tañedo v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was filed in August 2010 by the SPLC, the American Federation of Teachers, and the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP.

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