(CN) – A federal judge refused to dismiss forced-labor, human-trafficking and fraud claims brought by a group of Filipino teachers who, after being recruited to work in a Louisiana school district, had to pay $15,000 in fees and rent expensive housing while living under the constant threat of deportation if they complained.
The teachers sued recruiter Lourdes Navarro and Universal Placement International in California District Court for fraud and violations of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The putative class, represented by lead plaintiff Mairi Nuñag-Tanedo, also claimed RICO violations against the recruiter, who the teachers say lured them from the Philippines with a bait-and-switch scheme, and then controlled their lives with threats and intimidation while they worked for a school in Baton Rouge.
The teachers say they found themselves $15,000 in debt even before leaving the Philippines. The recruiter charged them a $5,000, nonrefundable fee up front, but later demanded $10,000 more before giving them the job. To force them to pay, the teachers claim, the recruiter kept their passports and visas.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford rejected Navarro and Universal’s motion to dismiss many of the teachers’ claims on Wednesday, finding the allegations compelling enough to advance the case.
“Plaintiffs allege that they had the choice of either walking away and losing $5,000 or paying $10,000 more to join the program,” Guilford wrote. “Neither option would allow them to avoid a massive loss.”
“It is sufficient that a defendant’s misconduct has created a situation where ceasing labor would cause a plaintiff serious harm,” the judge added. “In other words, the TVPA not only protects victims from the most heinous human trafficking crimes, but also various additional types of fraud and extortion leading to forced labor.”
The teachers say that when they arrived in Louisiana, things got even worse.
“When certain teachers stated that they planned to change their housing arrangements due to high costs, Navarro became upset, told the teachers that they could not move, and threatened to deport them,” the ruling states. “Navarro also threatened to deport a teacher for ‘complaining to a reporter at a Baton Rouge television station about abuses she suffered at the hands of recruiter defendants.'”
While certainly not as bad as some forced-labor claims made by foreign nationals, the teachers’ allegations still fall within the “broad reach of the TVPA,” Guilford ruled.
Indeed, the 7th Circuit upheld convictions two years ago in United States v. Calimlim against a family that brought a Filipina woman to the United States and forced to work 16-hour days, seven days a week, in virtual captivity for 19 years, while barring her from outside contact or talking to her relatives.
“The court takes allegations of forced labor seriously,” he wrote. “And while the Court understands defendants’ argument that the alleged facts here are somewhat less shocking than those described in cases such as Calimlim, Congress has made it clear that forced labor and human trafficking also involve ‘violations of other laws, including labor and immigration codes and laws against kidnapping, slavery, false imprisonment, assault, battery, pandering, fraud, and extortion. This shows the broad reach of the TVPA and the broad class of individuals whom it protects. Thus, it is the duty of this court to provide a forum for the alleged victims of forced labor, regardless of the severity of the alleged circumstances.”