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AFT Forum Spotlights International Teacher Recruitment

The AFT hosted representatives from labor, education, immigration rights and other advocacy groups on Nov. 18 for an emotional and informative half-day forum on international teacher recruitment. While much of the forum dealt with the experiences—good and bad—of Filipino teachers who have been recruited to work in American schools, the event also covered the abuse of migrant workers in many types of jobs, possible legislative solutions, and other countries' experiences with teacher migration.

AFT president Randi Weingarten opened the event by reviewing the background that led the union to organize the forum. A report the AFT issued in September, "Importing Educators: Causes and Consequences of International Teacher Recruitment," highlighted the growing trend of bringing overseas-educated teachers to work in U.S. schools and the accompanying problems, including exploitation, questionable hiring practices and harmful effects on the countries that are losing their most qualified teachers.

Following the release of the report, the AFT became aware of serious allegations concerning the exploitation of Filipino teachers in Louisiana, which led to formal complaints being filed in the state against one of the recruiting agencies. (See earlier story.) "The allegations were shocking," Weingarten said.

One of those Louisiana teachers, Ingrid Cruz from East Baton Rouge, told the attendees a powerful tale of the abuse she and her fellow Filipinas suffered at the hands of one agency, including having to make huge up-front payments, having to pay additional fees once they were hired, living in substandard housing at inflated rental rates, and receiving persistent threats if they raised any questions about their treatment. "Every day, we go to work and give our 100 percent to the job because, for us, teaching is not just a profession, it's a vocation," Cruz said. "But because of the constant threats and harassment, we were forced to pay the agency another round of placement fees just to be able to work in peace."

Ultimately, Cruz said, "We do not seek extra attention nor ask for accommodation. We just want pure justice for us and everybody else."

Shannon Lederer of the AFT's international affairs department, who helped put together the "Importing Educators" report, told the forum that it is difficult to compile good national figures about migrant teachers in this country. There are different types of visas, multiple recruiters and big variations from state to state. It is clear, however, that Texas has by far the most foreign teachers working on short-term visas.

The experiences of the Filipino teachers, shocking as they are, are identical to what migrant workers in other fields face, according to Mary Bauer from the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The abuses are too common to blame on a few bad apples," she said, adding that the problems result from a system that treats workers as commodities and is far too susceptible to abuse.

In Baltimore, where Filipino teachers now make up more than 10 percent of the teacher force, the experience of those educators has been much more positive than the situation Cruz described in Louisiana. Aileen Mercado, a Baltimore Teachers Union executive board member, described how the union has helped welcome the Filipino teachers, who also have created their own tight-knit community to support each other.

"They're a big part of our life in Baltimore," said AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson, who moderated the forum. She also heads the BTU's paraprofessional chapter.

Other presenters talked about possible legal remedies, which involve new legislation as well as the enforcement of existing laws. Louisiana, for example, has a decent state law that regulates employment contractors like the one that is the subject of the complaints filed by the AFT, Dan McNeil from the AFT legal department told the attendees. Unfortunately, some Louisiana officials didn't even know the law existed, much less attempt to enforce what appear to be clear violations. Another problem is that while some states have applicable laws on the books, other states have no such statutes.

At the federal level, House education committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) plans to introduce legislation that would give the federal government better tools to deal with the types of abuses described in the forum, and to hold recruiters and employers accountable, the AFL-CIO's Sonia Ramirez said. But the overall solution, she added, has to be comprehensive immigration reform that includes strong protections for workers.

November 19, 2009