A Los Angeles teacher placement company has been ordered to pay $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers it lured to the United States and forced into exploitive contracts after arriving to teach in Louisiana. 

The verdict follows a two-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. The case was filed on behalf of the teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Covington and Burling law firm.

“This ground-breaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this cases - labour contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude - are things that should have no place in 21st-century America.”

Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated. This decision puts unscrupulous recruitment agencies on notice that human beings—regardless of citizenship status—cannot be forced into contracts that require them to pay illegal fees.”

Dennis Auerbach, lead attorney on the case from Covington and Burling, praised the perseverance of the Filipino teachers. “We are very pleased with the verdict in this case and proud to have stood by these brave teachers as they finally obtained justice,” he said. 

Bonded labour

The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of the H-1B guest worker programme. Administered by the U.S. Department of Labour, the H-1B visas permit foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. Most teachers paid the placement service about $16,000 USD—several times the average household income in the Philippines—to obtain their jobs.

The vast majority of the teachers had to borrow money to pay the massive 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 investments that would not be returned. The recruiters also confiscated the teachers’ passports and visas until the recruitment fees were paid in full.

In addition to paying up-front fees, the teachers 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 forced to forfeit the thousands of dollars they already had paid. Those contracts were declared illegal and unenforceable by the court as part of this case.