The teachers’ victory: Psychological coercion and human trafficking
Universal Placement International (UPI) recruited teachers to work in the United States sometime in 2006. A work program was advertised in the newspaper and several teachers responded. The applicants were interviewed and were asked to pay $5,000 upon submission of their documents.
Petitions for working visas (H1B) for the teachers were processed through the recruitment agency. When these were approved and the applicants concluded their interview with the US Embassy, the teachers were asked to pay an additional $10,000. Failure to pay the additional sum, they were told, would result in forfeiture of the first $5,000 and the teachers would not be permitted to travel to the US. Considering their desire to work abroad and after obtaining huge loans to pay the recruitment fees, the teachers paid the additional demands of the recruiter.
The teachers were placed in school districts in Louisiana.
According to the court records, the recruiter threatened to have the teachers deported if they start speaking against her or if they did not comply with her many demands. When some teachers planned to change their housing arrangements to save on the high cost, the recruiter became upset and threatened to deport them. The recruiter also threatened to sue them and to allow their visas to expire if they did not pay more fees.
Having garnered enough courage to protest their treatment, a group of these teachers filed a class action lawsuit against the recruiter before a federal district court (Mairi Nunag Tanedo et al v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, et al ). The teachers listed several charges, including violation of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), fraud and unfair business practices.
Non physical coercion
The recruiters filed a motion to dismiss the case. Their position was that there was lack of severity of the teacher’s financial situation and working conditions. The TVPA was enacted to combat trafficking persons into the sex trade, slavery and slavery-like conditions. The defendant claims that the teachers were not treated in a manner that would amount to any of the prohibited activities. “Teaching high school math and science hardly qualifies as the type of activity targeted by Congress,” the recruiter argued.
But while the teachers were not “physically” maltreated, the District Court found the TVPA charges against the recruiter a valid claim. In a decision dated May 11, 2011, the court stated that involuntary servitude also includes non physical forms of coercion. It is sufficient that the recruiter’s conduct created a situation where ceasing labor would cause teachers serious harm, the ruling said. It was also clearly stated that TVPA is not only about heinous crimes but also covers various types of fraud and extortion leading to forced labor.
The District Court stated that threatening deportation for violation of immigration law was an act that caused serious harm to the teachers. It recognized that the recruiter engaged in a fraudulent scheme to financially manipulate the teachers through the various threats she perpetrated. These threats of deportation and threats to let their visas expire was an abuse of the legal process since the goal was to intimidate and coerce the teachers into ’forced labor’. The teachers had no choice but to continue working because they incurred debts to pay the recruiter. The only way to re-pay these obligations was to work. They just did not want to work, they “needed” to work.
When we hear about human trafficking, we usually associate it with involuntary servitude where an individual is forced to work without pay or with minimal wages. Forcing a worker to render services under threat that she is going to be arrested, imprisoned and deported are the classic cases of human trafficking. However, with the decision of the US District Court,the teachers prevailed in their right to be treated justly and with dignity. The decision is not yet final. The recruiters may still file an appeal. But the US District court decision is worthy of commendation as indeed psychological coercion is just as bad as physical coercion.
(The The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) recently cancelled the license of the local-based PARS Int’l Placement Agency, representative of the US-based UPI.)
(Tancinco may be reached at email@example.com or at 887 7177 or 721 1963)