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BATON ROUGE, La.
A class-action lawsuit accuses a Los Angeles-based company of a human trafficking scheme to bring hundreds of Filipino teachers to Louisiana public schools using exploitative contracts that charged them excessive, illegal fees.
Universal Placement International Inc. and its owner Lourdes Navarro are accused of racketeering and fraud in a lawsuit that the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center said they filed Thursday in a California federal court on behalf of 350 teachers.
"We were herded onto a path, a slowly constricting path, where the moment you realize that something is not right, you were already past the point of no return," said Ingrid Cruz, one of the teachers named as a plaintiff in the case, reading from a prepared statement. Cruz teaches science and robotics classes at a Baton Rouge-area middle school.
The lawsuit says the company illegally required the teachers to pay thousands of dollars in fees to be hired to jobs mainly in East Baton Rouge Parish, but also in Caddo, Jefferson and other parishes and in state-run schools in New Orleans.
Teachers were saddled with crippling debts, placed into shoddy housing and threatened with deportation if they complained, said Daniel McNeil, a lawyer for the AFT, equating the conditions to forced labor and indentured servitude.
"This is far closer to slavery than we should be willing to tolerate," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Questions to Universal Placement International about the lawsuit were directed to a Los Angeles-based attorney who didn't immediately return a phone call Thursday from The Associated Press.
Each teacher had to pay about $16,000 before ever leaving the Philippines - five times the average annual household income in the country, the lawsuit alleges. If they couldn't afford the fees, teachers borrowed money, in many instances from lenders recommended by the recruiting firm who charged hefty interest rates, attorneys for the teachers union and law center said.
More fees and expensive legal entanglements followed once the teachers arrived in the United States, the lawsuit claims, like contracts in which the teachers agreed to pay a percentage of their monthly income to Universal and fees for arranging housing. Passports and visas were confiscated to ensure the fees would be paid, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit - also filed against Universal's sister operation in the Philippines, PARS International Placement Agency - seeks a refund of all fees paid by teachers and damages totaling millions.
Also named in the lawsuit are the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and several current and former school system administrators, including former Superintendent Charlotte Placide. They are accused of ignoring the alleged abuses and in some cases assisting the recruiting company with illegal behavior.
"It was more than turning a blind eye. They actively participated in what was going on," Bauer said.
A spokesman for the EBR Parish School System issued a statement saying the system hasn't officially been served with the lawsuit and couldn't yet respond to the allegations.
"The school system values all of its employees and takes every precaution to ensure their tenure in our school district is a positive and mutually beneficial experience for the employee and the students they serve," said Chris Trahan, system communications director.
Complaints about Universal Placement International and Navarro date back to last October, when the Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed complaints with state authorities alleging the company was operating illegally in the state and charging the teachers exorbitant fees.
In April, a state labor department judge ordered the company to refund fees that the LFT estimates will total $1.8 million. The company's attorney said that ruling would be appealed.
AP reporter Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this story.