Monday, August 15, 2011

UNITY STATEMENT: Campaign for the Just Treatment of International Corps of Educators

Over the past decade, the United States saw a growing shortage of teachers especially in inner-city and remote rural schools. This shortage was further compounded with the increased need for highly-qualified teachers as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mainly in core areas such as math, science and special education.  In response to this shortage, school districts all over the country looked around the globe to recruit experienced and credentialed teachers to assist the country in educating its children.  This was answered more than willingly by thousands of foreign teachers annually.

The arrival of international teachers was welcomed by different schools nationwide.  Indeed, our country is a nation of immigrants and it is built on the contributions of different peoples from all over the world.  The communities readily embrace these new workers as they are to be part of the continuing story of our nation’s greatness.  Meanwhile, these international teachers are delighted to having accomplished the first step towards a better future for their families – a shot at the American dream.

The other half of the story is not as beautiful as we imagined however.  In the process by which they were recruited and years after they started working, these international teachers are subjected to different forms of deceit and manipulation.  The most common form of exploitation is the charging of illegally exorbitant placement fees and other charges.  But grabbing the opportunity to work in the US, these teachers risked everything, often leaving their respective countries deep in debt.

Ironically, the most recent of these unfair treatment of international teachers stems from a US Department of Labor ruling which is supposed to be against an employer who admitted to breaking the law.  The US DOL Wage and Hour Division found Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) in willful violation of the laws governing the H1B foreign worker program.  By having the recruited teachers pay for various fees that are supposed to be shouldered by the employer, the ruling asserted that this is tantamount to PGCPS not paying the proper wages.

In settlement for the violations, PGCPS and the DOL agreed on the following remedies: (1) PGCPS to pay $4 million in back wages to the teachers; (2) PGCPS to pay $1.7 million civil penalty; and (3) PGCPS is debarred for two years from participating in the H1B program. This DOL ruling, at a glance, is a victory to the H1B teachers who were victimized by illegal fees, and victory to the American workers as well, as the penalty seeks to prevent employers from paying lower wages to foreign counterparts.

The full burden of the ruling’s remedies, however, falls on the victims themselves.  With PGCPS debarred from the H1B program, it will not be able to renew the legal stay of its existing teachers whose H1B visas are set to expire within the next two years.  The school district is also prohibited from filing permanent visa sponsorships for these teachers who, under the intent of H1B program, deserve to become permanent residents of the US.  This results to a series of terminations that by the end of July 2011 alone more than 200 teachers are affected.

We resolutely decry this US DOL ruling as it is patently unjust.  This is the United States of America, a nation that values equality and fairness, a land of opportunities; where those who do well are rewarded and those who violate its laws face the force of justice.  In this DOL ruling, the violator gets a slap on the wrist and the more than 1,000 teachers who are victims are awarded token cash before being sent to the gallows.

Let us be aware that these teachers, most of them from the Philippines, already made extreme personal sacrifices – selling their homes, exhausting their savings, getting high-interest loans, uprooting their families – in order to help our country educate our children.   For almost six years, they have become an active part of our communities.  Sending them back to their respective countries is equivalent to sentencing them to even more severe hardships.

We strongly denounce this US DOL ruling as it contradicts the spirit of the law and sets a bad precedent to future cases.  Further, this will clearly be a powerful disincentive to victims who intend to expose fraudulent recruiting schemes perpetrated by rogue employers.

The law is intended to penalize violating employers but not at the expense of its victims, as that would not serve as a deterrent to unlawful activity, but rather a deterrent to the discovery of wrongdoings in the first place. We are aware that there are numerous investigations currently conducted by the US DOL involving this kind of employer violation.  It is frightening that this ruling will be a possible template for these cases.

We vehemently reject this US DOL ruling as it goes against the interests of the children of Prince George County.  These international corps of educators have strong track records and made important contributions to improving the performance of the school district. They deserve to be commended and not terminated.

Currently, PGCPS needs more highly qualified teachers with the reduction in force implemented the previous years.  Losing 1,000 more of these tested-and-proven credentialed educators who have a head start of knowing the children of Prince George is not only damaging to the school district but is as good as throwing away the investments that will help prepare its students to be globally competitive.

With the points raised above, we, the undersigned organizations, trade unions and federations, community groups and advocacy networks, firmly urge the US Department of Labor to reconsider its ruling.  We insist on a fair and just remedy that will allow current international teachers — the very victims of the violation — to continue their legal stay and employment with PGCPS.

We call on the nation’s legislators to review the laws governing recruitment and employment of foreign workers. We petition for amendments that will bring stronger protection to both American and foreign workers especially those who are victims of fraud and visa violations.

We appeal to other organizations and groups, parents and the public as a whole to unite with the international teachers of Prince George County in their quest for justice. This is not an issue of the teachers alone but a concern affecting the children in our communities.  This is not an issue about the school district alone but a concern of our nation — a nation that is a beneficiary of talents, knowledge and skills of foreign workers.

Justice for the Prince George County international teachers!
Justice for all foreign teachers!

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