Recruiting agency accused of extortion; Filipinos say they paid dearly to teach in La.
Loida Virina said she forked over all the money in her possession, and then sold her home and car in the Philippines for the opportunity to come teach in the United States.
Universal Placement International, the firm that recruited her, charged thousands of dollars to help her find a job at a Louisiana school. Then, when she arrived in California last summer, she said, the company forced her to sign papers she did not have time to read and cautioned her and other new recruits not to ask questions.
After signing the papers, the woman heard the voice of Lourdes Navarro, the head of the firm, on the speaker phone. Navarro warned the recruits not to mingle with Filipino teachers outside of their group once they arrived in Baton Rouge. If they did not obey, Navarro threatened she would promptly send them back to the Philippines.
The woman's allegations, included in a signed deposition, were part of a long complaint the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed with the state's attorney general and workforce commission Wednesday. The complaint alleges that Universal Placement International, which has recruited at least 200 teachers to Louisiana schools, extorted them out of thousands of dollars apiece and held them in "virtual servitude."
The company has recruited teachers for Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes, as well as the
The teachers allege that the firm's leader, Navarro, charged recruits about $15,000 to obtain a job, and then required them to turn over 10 percent of their salary for two years. Universal Placement International is registered as a corporation in Louisiana, but is based in California and the Philippines, and does not have a license as an employing agency in Louisiana.
Many U.S. employers, including school districts, use recruiting companies like Universal to attract workers. And the practice of charging foreigners fees to help connect them to employers is not in itself illegal in fact, it's a fairly common practice.
But the union complaint notes that it's illegal to charge fees of both the employer and the applicant, which Universal did in the case of the RSD teachers. They allege that it's also illegal to charge teachers employed in Louisiana fees prior to arriving in the state.
Finally, they note that the visa fees should have been charged to the employer, not the worker, a possible violation of federal law.
"The alleged behavior of this recruiter and the treatment of these teachers is quite frankly disgusting and an affront to basic American values," said LFT President Steve Monaghan, in the statement.
Navarro did not return two calls made to Universal Placement International on Thursday.
The complaint alleges that Navarro has been convicted of money laundering and other crimes in both California and New Jersey.
The Associated Press reported in 2003 that she was convicted in California on felony counts of
Are 'excellent teachers'
According to documents in the LFT complaint, Navarro's company paid for administrators from East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes to take recruiting trips to the Philippines. The state also paid the company $47,500 in 2007 to recruit up to 20 special education teachers for the Recovery School District, at a time when the district was hiring hundreds of new employees.
"From all indications, these have been excellent teachers," said RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas. But he said the district did not use the company's services again, partly because of their aggressive style.
Thirteen of the 19 teachers the district hired through Universal still work for the district, he said.
Jefferson Parish has recruited 40 teachers through the program, a "few of whom have come forward" with serious allegations, said Meladie Munch, president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.
Hundreds of Filipino teachers have been hired to replace unionized, veteran teachers fired after Hurricane Katrina, while thousands of Louisiana college graduates are unable to find employment in the state.
Coerced into signing
In signed statements, several East Baton Rouge Parish schoolteachers alleged that they were forced to pay thousands of dollars to the company's counterpart in the Philippines before they left. As soon as they arrived in California, they said, they were coerced into signing a second contract agreeing to fork over 10 percent of their pay. At that point, they felt they had little choice but to sign.
"When we arrived
Another teacher, Alma Ganzon, said "I was not given a chance to read the 4 to 5 pages contract. We were warned not to ask a lot of questions."
Antonio Limjoco said he actually had time to glimpse the clause about the 10 percent payment, and questioned the company representative about it.
"I was not entertained at all," he said. "Being in a foreign land with a plane to catch and deep in debt after paying all those fees, I signed blindly. At that time when everything is mortgaged except my soul, there was no turning back."
Once in Baton Rouge, the teachers alleged, they were forced to live two to a bedroom in the Savoy Plaza with the agency serving as a middleman between the teachers and the complex's managers.
Virina said in her statement that the teachers were charged higher rent than other tenants in the complex.
Several of the teachers said that company officials prohibited them from communicating with the broader Filipino community in Baton Rouge, or other Americans.
Virina said that Navarro visited Louisiana in August 2008, meeting with all the Filipino teachers at a Chinese restaurant.
"She asked this question: 'Who among you ride with American teachers in going to school?' She warned us again not to ride anymore, and that night after the meeting, she called me in my phone and telling me not to ride anymore nor talking to Americans."
Teachers said the company charged them for everything: furniture, carpools, food.
Ganzon described a welcome dinner that a previous batch of teachers held when her cohort arrived at the Savoy Plaza, including adobo, rice, soda and water. "According to them, it is a service of love and camaraderie for fellow teachers."
But the next morning, she said, the company collected $15 from each teacher for the simple meal.
After Hurricane Gustav, Navarro told the teachers they would be sent to jail if they tried to get food stamps, according to Virina.
"I have so many loans in the Philippines, in fact, I was not able to support my three children and husband because all of my salary goes to financing agencies which I borrowed from just to pay for
As part of its complaint, the teachers union included a copy of the brochure sent by the company to school districts, promising "we offer our SERVICE FOR FREE!"
"We understand that because of the budget constraint that the school district does not have any funding for this type of service," the brochure states.
The company promises to
"The one truthful, honest thing Universal has done is provide a pool of highly qualified teachers," said Daniel McNeil, associate director of the legal department for the national American Federation of Teachers.
McNeil said the filings with the Louisiana attorney general and workforce commission are the first in a "coordinated legal effort" that could involve a federal investigation since the teachers were all in Louisiana under a federal visa program. He said Universal performs the same service for schools in California, although he wasn't aware of any investigation yet into the company's presence there.
The complaint asks for the prosecution of Navarro, and also that the $15,000 payments be returned to the teachers and their contracts with Universal be declared invalid.
"One of the reasons they came here is to send money home," McNeil said. "And at the end of the day there's no money left."
Copyright 2009, The Times-Picayune
From: Sarah Carr, "Recruiting agency accused of extortion; Filipinos say they paid dearly to teach in La." The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 2, 2009,