Monday, December 24, 2012

Just Another Guest Worker Program

A press release of the American Federation of Teachers reports a righteous decision in Nunang-Tanedo et al. v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board in which

A federal court jury late Monday ordered Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner and president, Lourdes Navarro, to pay $4.5 million to the 350 Filipino teachers they lured to teach in Louisiana public schools following Hurricane Katrina and forced into exploitive contracts after arriving in the United States through the federal guest worker program. 

The verdict in the class-action lawsuit follows a two-week trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. The case was filed on behalf of the teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Covington & Burling law firm. 

"This groundbreaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this case—labor contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude—are things that should have no place in 21st-century America." 

Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, "The jury sent a clear message that exploitive and abusive business practices involving federal guest workers will not be tolerated. This decision puts unscrupulous recruitment agencies on notice that human beings—regardless of citizenship status—cannot be forced into contracts that require them to pay illegal fees."

Dennis Auerbach, lead attorney on the case from Covington and Burling, praised the perseverance of the Filipino teachers. "We are very pleased with the verdict in this case and proud to have stood by these brave teachers as they finally obtained justice," he said. 

Other Background Information: 

The teachers began arriving in the United States in 2007 as part of the H-1B guest worker program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, H-1B visas permit foreign nationals with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. Most teachers paid the placement service about $16,000—several times the average household income in the Philippines—to obtain their jobs. 

Nearly all the teachers had to borrow money to pay the massive recruiting fees. The recruiters referred the teachers to private lenders who charged 3 to 5 percent interest per month. Teachers were forced to pay these exorbitant fees because they had already made substantial investments that would not be returned. The recruiters confiscated their passports and visas until the teachers paid. 

In addition to paying up-front fees, the teachers also were forced to sign away an additional 10 percent of the salaries they would earn during their second year of teaching. Teachers who resisted signing the contracts were threatened with being sent home and losing the thousands of dollars they already had paid. Those contracts were declared illegal and unenforceable by the court as part of this case.

Approximately 20% of the 700,000 workers in information technology in the U.S. are here on an H-1B visa.   While supporters of the program argue that it allows imporation of workers with unique talents, that need can be met by the O (for "outstanding") visa program, which has no quotas.

But the claimed shortage of skilled technical workers has little basis in reality.  Robert Oak of The Economic Populist has found

There were 614,636 Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees awarded to U.S. Citizens and green card holders in 2011, yet there were only 145,930 jobs gained in all of STEM in 2011. In other words, the United States already produces far more STEM than can be employed....

Even before the recession, less than a third of S&E degree holders were working in areas requiring or even closely associated with their degree. A full 65% of STEM graduates were in other occupations after just two years of graduating. By 2011, 53% of all college graduates couldn't either find any job or a position in their field of study.

And Dan Rather last year explained

Over the past year, Dan Rather Reports has done a series of programs about the foreign labor force brought here by a vast array of U.S companies ostensibly to do jobs they can't find Americans to fill. Using an alphabet soup of special temporary work visas, employers have imported millions of foreign workers -- from hotel housekeepers to farm laborers to software engineers. It's part of the federal guest worker system and it's perfectly legal.

Most people --- including guest workers -- might assume that if a U.S. company decides to sponsor a person to come here on work visa, they must have tried to hire an American first. But that's not the necessarily the case. According to U.S. Department of Labor, a guest worker visa known as H-1B for "specialty occupations" especially tech workers -- may be issued "even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job." In fact, the bulletin notes, "A U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of the foreign worker."

Guest workers have little leverage to complain about wages or working conditions because unlike citizens or legal permanent residents, they are dependent on their employers not just for their paycheck, but also for their immigration status. If they lose their job, they may lose their right to be in the country. Despite laws requiring H-1B employers to pay guest workers what's known as a "prevailing wage," the cost savings offered by visa-holders are an open secret in the tech world.

As the graph (below) from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities indicates, there were, as of October, approximately ten unemployed persons for every available job.   Even in the STEM field, there is a surplus of qualified workers, yet the disinformation industry and their political allies are hard at work convincing Americans that other Americans aren't up to the task, that they need more training or education or a better work ethic.  In the Louisiana case, it was teachers who, even at the time of Katrina, were likely in surplus.

Foreigners lured into the U.S.A. by unscrupulous outfits like Universal Placement International are at particular risk of being exploited.   But native-born workers who find salaries and benefits lagging also are exploited, even if they don't have the Southern Poverty Law Center to look out for their interests.  

                                                  MERRY CHRISTMAS

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