Friday, April 15, 2011
FIL-AM COMMUNITY THROWS SUPPORT FOR BELEAGUERED PINOY TEACHERS
The Filipino-American community has wrapped itself around beleaguered Filipino teachers in Prince George’s public schools, rocked last week by a US Labor Department order penalizing them for illegally collecting fees from the Filipino teachers.
More teachers reportedly lost their jobs since the Manila Mail first reported the PG public schools decision to stop renewing work visas for “non-critical” foreign teachers – about 800 of them Filipinos – who were hired, beginning in 2005, to help the school district meet Bush-era No Child Left Behind standards.
The Philippine American Bar Association (PABA) of Metro DC has started looking at individual cases of Filipino teachers. Ludy Cabanas, PABA-DC president, fear they could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases and revealed a plan to set up a legal defense fund to draw in additional lawyers.
But Millet Panga of the Pilipino Educators Network (PEN) said they are working with the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) that is providing free legal services to the teachers. “We want to avail of pro bono services for our teachers first although they have the option to choose the lawyers of their choice,” she explained.
From PEN’s own reckoning, about 500 Filipino teachers’ jobs are in peril.
“We are still waiting for the (Maryland) Board of Education to meet with us,” Panga wrote the Manila Mail, lamenting “Time is not on our side”.
The teachers say that if workforce reductions are unavoidable due to the $155 million cut in the county’s school budget, they want the lay-offs based on seniority, qualifications and performance, and not because they are Filipinos.
“We decided to group them according to their needs and circumstances,” Cabanas told the Manila Mail, “Some are in different stages of their visa – some have H-1B visas expiring very soon, some have labor certification, others have filed for permanent residency.”
“One organization can not handle all of that,” she averred, but also stressed, “Definitely, the teachers have a good case.”
Cabanas said they are working closely with various Fil-Am groups as well as the labor attache’s office at the Philippine Embassy.
Filipino teachers also found a formidable ally in the million-strong American Federation of Teachers (AFT) which backed the federal government’s decision to fine the PG county public school system.
Meanwhile, PG public school administrators announced they’ve stopped hiring foreign teachers even as they appeal the Labor Department’s order.
The Labor Department’s Wage & Hour Division directed the school district to pay back $4.2 million illegally collected from foreign teachers and slapped another $1.7 million in penalties for the “willful nature” of their labor law violations.
The order said foreign teachers hired between 2005 and 2010 under the H-1B visa program were made to pay anywhere from $190 to $320 each for filing fees; $3,500 in placement fees; immigration attorney fees averaging $1,000; and about 700 of the affected teachers were required to pay the $500 anti-fraud filing fee. All that money was ordered returned to the teachers.
H-1B visa rules stipulate employers should pay the cost of bringing in skilled workers from abroad. The Labor Department estimated teachers lost $4,046 each from the illegal collection of fees.
“All employers, even school systems, are required to follow the law,” said Nancy Leppink, acting administrator of the Wage & Hour Division.
“It is appalling that a school district illegally and unfairly exploited workers who came from other countries to teach in American schools,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT president.
“This isn’t the first example of this type of abuse. A 2009 AFT report called attention to abuses in international teacher recruitment, and the AFT filed state and federal complaints last year on behalf of Filipino teachers working in Louisiana,” Weingarten added.
She revealed the AFT has been “actively pushing for legislation to regulate the recruitment industry, and is participating in a MacArthur Foundation-funded effort to develop a code of ethics for the international recruitment of teachers.”
“Our goal,” she stressed, “is to create a systemic fix to keep such abuses from happening again. If proactive regulations had been in place to stop the bad actors, Prince George’s County Public Schools would not be spending millions in back pay now.”
Maria Angala, of the Pinoy Teachers Network in Washington DC, thanked Weingarten for throwing her support behind Filipino teachers in PG public schools.
“The spirit of strength and solidarity is what was instilled to me by our union leaders who constantly remind me to be tough, to stand tall and to persevere amid the challenges we are currently facing in our profession,” Angala wrote.
The Labor Department order could open up other school districts that hire foreign teachers to the similar penalties. Anthony Japzon, president of the Baltimore-based Filipino Educators in Maryland, said district schools followed the same practices of PG county public schools.
Japzon said Filipino teachers willingly paid the fees and school officials may not have known they were breaking the law by collecting those fees from the foreign teachers.