La. Teacher Union Files Complaint Against Recuiter

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers charges that teachers from the Philippines were brought over to fill a teacher shortage, then held in servitude by the recruiting company. The firm is accused of taking chunks of the teachers' wages and threatening to deport them if they complained.

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Some school districts in Louisiana needed more teachers, so they filled those positions by recruiting from the Philippines. Now the teachers union, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, says the Filipino teachers faced extortion and threats from the company that brought them to this country. The union has filed a complaint and says the company that recruited the teachers should be shut down.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The LFT says Los Angeles-based Universal Placement International sent teachers to five school districts in Louisiana that faced shortages in recent years. The company demanded fees from teachers as high as $15,000 to pay for visa applications and paperwork. But LFT President Steven Monahan says that was just the beginning.

Mr. STEVE MONAHAN (President, Louisiana Federation of Teachers): Added to their bill was a 10 percent of their monthly salary for two years, so that amounted to approximately 37 percent of that teacher's salary.

ABRAMSON: Monahan says teachers who complained were told they could lose their jobs. Without employment, they'd lose their visas, too.

Mr. MONAHAN: So if they were to be terminated from the position, they would return home to the Philippines and have unpayable debt.

ABRAMSON: Lourdes Navarro, head of Universal Placement International, was apparently dogged about making sure that teachers coughed up the extra fees. Documents filed with the state show that Navarro sued teachers who didn't pay on time. Lourdes Navarro and her company did not return calls for comment. The business was lucrative enough that Universal Placement International could pay for school officials to come to Manila to interview teachers.

Chris Trahan, with the East Baton Rouge school, says that was largely a matter of convenience.

Mr. CHRIS TRAHAN (Director of Communications, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board): The first time that we interviewed with some of the candidates, it was done over the Internet and over the telephone and - found that it was difficult to conduct an interview that way.

ABRAMSON: Trahan says his district received complaints and stopped working with Universal Placement months ago. Other firms that recruit Filipino teachers say they treat their people well and do not dip into salaries.

Ligaya Avenida runs Avenida International Consultants. She says most teachers are happy to pay her around $7,000 up front.

Ms. LIGAYA AVENIDA (Avenida International Consultants): If they were in the Philippines, the likelihood of them being able to get a job here on their own is nil.

ABRAMSON: The issue spotlights just how unpredictable the market for teachers is. In one district, teachers are laid off, while another may have a shortage in say, science or special ed teachers and feel that a for-profit recruiter is the best option. Baltimore schools have hired hundreds of Filipino teachers, among them Eileen Mercado, who works at a charter school in the city.

Ms. EILEEN MERCADO (Teacher): There are a lot of success stories, like Filipino teachers have been promoted as department heads and Filipino teachers being teachers of the year in their schools.

ABRAMSON: The American Federation of Teachers recently produced a lengthy report on the increasing reliance of school districts on teachers with special H1B visas, but the union denies it is out to stop the importation of foreign teachers. Louisiana state officials say they will investigate.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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