12/20/2011

Precedent-Setting Decision Issued in SPLC Teacher Trafficking Case

A federal judge set a historic legal precedent by granting class action status to a human trafficking lawsuit involving more than 350 Filipino teachers – a decision likely to benefit countless other human trafficking victims in the future.

It will be the first time the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) has been applied to a group of people, rather than just individual victims. This precedent will benefit other human trafficking victims by showing that the TVPA's legal protections can be applied on a class-wide basis. U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt of the Central District of California issued the decision.

"This is a significant decision that offers great hope for the more than 350 Filipino teachers victimized by this abusive scheme," said Jim Knoepp, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney on the case. "It also sets a powerful legal precedent that will help many more human trafficking victims receive justice."

 

Earlier this year, the SPLC case set another precedent when a judge allowed the TVPA to apply to the teachers. The judge recognized that Congress intended the law to extend to cases involving more subtle forms of coercion and not only cases of physical force, restraint or direct threats. 

 

The case was brought on behalf of guestworkers who say they were lured to teach in Louisiana public schools only to be forced into exploitive contracts by labor contractors. The lawsuit accuses officials of two labor contractors – Universal Placement International, based in Los Angeles, and its sister organization, Manila-based PARS International Placement Agency – of human trafficking and racketeering.

 

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. Most teachers paid about $16,000, several times the average household income in the Philippines, in order to obtain their jobs.

 

Nearly all the teachers had to borrow money to pay the recruiting fees. The recruiters referred the teachers to private lenders who charged 3 to 5 percent interest per month. Teachers were forced to pay these exorbitant fees because they had already made substantial financial investments that would not be returned. The recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until they paid.

The teachers were also 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. 

 

“The judge’s decision is great news for education workers and for students,” said Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. “Not only does it bring these teachers one step closer to justice, it sends the message that recruiters who make a profit by taking advantage of workers will not be tolerated. The AFT applauds this decision and vows to continue in our mission to make sure all educational employees, who make a difference every day in the lives of students, are treated with fairness and respect.”

The lawsuit, Nunag Tanedo v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was filed in August 2010. The teachers are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers and the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP. The lawsuit is scheduled for trial next July.