Foreign teachers face unequal working conditions

Chamblee High School science teacher Shaheen Begum is the kind of teacher you hope your child draws.

She has two decades of experience and was teacher of the year at her last school. Energetic and engaging, Begum wakes with a desire to instill a love of science in her students.

Although she teaches in the DeKalb County school system, she’s not a DeKalb County teacher. She has no pension, no tenure and if she wants to take a sick day, the cost of the substitute comes out of her pocket.

That’s because Begum is from India and was recruited to teach in DeKalb schools by Global Teachers Research and Resources, a Jonesboro company with a troubled labor history that is currently the target of a new federal investigation into alleged unfair labor practices. Begum’s students appear to love her and she them. “This is probably the most I’ve ever learned in science,” said 14-year-old freshman Sarah Wright.

“They are awesome. I love them,” she said, accepting a hug from Sarah. “They keep me coming in every day.”

But her students — and their parents — do not know the story of why she or scores of other international teachers are in classrooms across Georgia. “Because she’s smart?” one said. “Her experience?” another ventured.

Begum is in America on a H-1B visa, a type usually reserved for computer programmers and other high-tech workers Silicon Valley employers complain are not plentiful enough at home. Less well-known is how the H-1B visa program is used to recruit teachers.

In the past five years, Georgia school districts have spent at least $52.5 million in taxpayer money importing hundreds of foreign teachers like Begum to staff hard-to-fill positions in math, science and special education. Most of those teachers end up in metro Atlanta, often in low-performing schools that have an even more difficult time finding domestic teachers.

The international market for teacher talent is a good deal for school districts, which get needed skilled instructors without paying for their benefits. And international teachers, some of whom bring their children in hopes of enrolling them in American universities, seldom complain publicly about the conditions.

But human rights groups say the practice comes close to human trafficking and treats teachers like a commodity — traded between school districts with little care given to their situation and with virtually no representation.

Lawsuits and federal investigations show the system can lead to abuses. In 2011, Global was fined more than $75,000 for failing to properly pay its employees and is under a new U.S. Department of Labor investigation for similar claims. Some employees say Global continues to violate the law and is erratic in how it pays its teachers.

The chief operating officer of the company is State Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, a member of the House Education Committee. Glanton said the firm fills a void.

“If it were not a need, then this H-1B teacher process would not be in place,” he said. “We’ve recognized at the highest level that this is something we don’t have a handle on and we have to bring people in from other places to do it.”

‘Best bang for our buck’

Although he is a top executive with the company, Glanton said his job mainly deals with logistics — putting teachers in schools and making sure their visa and certification papers are valid. A preacher on the side, Glanton said he does not know much about the firm’s finances or the details of how they pay their teachers.

Those who do know, including Global CEO Paddy Sharma, declined to speak to the AJC about the company’s business practices.

One teacher, who asked not to be named out of fear for her job and immigration status, told the AJC that the company made her pay her own immigration costs and the costs of renewing her H-1B visa once she was here.

“They don’t pay for anything,” she said. As proof, she produced a cancelled check made out to U.S. Employment Services, a company that shares an address with an immigration law firm headed by Chandler Sharma, husband of Global’s CEO. She said the check was to pay for her H-1B renewal.

She said Global is regularly late paying its employees, and she said she and other teachers don’t get paid until they get a contract with a school system. In one case when contracts were signed late, she said she went more than a month without pay.

Several teachers described staying in the Sharmas’ guest house, unpaid and waiting for their first assignment. One teacher said he spent a year as a substitute teacher when a permanent position for him could not be found.

If true, these are likely violations of the terms of the H-1B visa which requires employers to have a job waiting for their foreign employees and to begin paying them immediately once they arrive. They are also strikingly similar to accusations against Global that formed the basis of the earlier federal investigation into the firm.

Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney, said these types of abuses were common in the high tech industry a decade ago until the federal government cracked down. The activities described by some Global teachers, if true, are “just flat out illegal,” Kuck said.

“These are the type of things that give H-1B visas a bad name, because these visas are essential to our economy and important for growth,” he said.

H-1B visas are granted in limited numbers with strict rules to keep U.S. employers from using foreign workers in jobs that could be filled by Americans.

But the importation of teachers into Georgia schools clearly is a financial windfall for school districts.

By far, the district relying the most of recruiting firms for immigrant teachers is DeKalb County, which has spent $16.3 million on such contracts since 2010, according to Open Georgia, an online database run by the state that tracks government spending.

Tekshia Ward-Smith, personnel director for the DeKalb County schools, said she would prefer American teachers, but there are not enough. In the meantime, hiring immigrant teachers through the recruiting firms provides DeKalb with “the best bang for our buck.”

“They save us because we don’t have to pay teacher’s retirement on them nor benefits,” she said.

Ward-Smith said the district does not involve itself in the details of how the recruiting firms operate.

“They provide training, lodging, moving expenses. Is that taken out of the salary that the district pays? I can’t say,” she said.

Paying sick leave and other ‘fees’

In DeKalb, the district pays Global an amount equal to a regular teacher’s salary, based on academic degree and years of experience, plus an $11,500 finder’s fee for each teacher. The AJC looked at other Global contracts and found nearly identical terms across the state.

Five Global teachers interviewed by the AJC said the company deducted an additional “administrative fee” from their pay, up to 10 percent of their paycheck.

In addition, international teachers in DeKalb don’t even get sick days. In October, Glanton informed Global teachers in DeKalb that should they take a sick day, they would lose a day’s pay to cover the cost of a substitute.

“Please understand this decision is based on a budget concerns (sic) by the county,” Glanton wrote.

Ward-Smith said DeKalb is just enforcing the terms of its contract with Global, which does not include providing paid sick leave for Global’s contract teachers.

“We have no control over what Global passes on to their employees,” she said.

In an interview with the AJC, Glanton said the company has asked the county to consider reducing its payments to Global only by the cost of the substitute, rather than a full day’s pay.

The company is not considering absorbing the cost.

“We couldn’t afford that,” he said.

Yet Glanton insisted the company treats employees like family.

“I’ve never seen a company where the owners really truly care about the people (like Global),” he said. “I’ve watched these owners help (employees’) kids go to college, help family members back home, just things you don’t get in a standard company every day.”

Every company has disgruntled employees, he said, adding that some Global employees may not appreciate what the family-owned company had done for them.

Global has a cozy relationship with DeKalb County and other metro districts. The company hired the district’s former director of human resources to negotiate contracts with her former employer. Global also has hired the former HR directors for the Clayton County and Fulton County schools and had large contracts with both systems, records show.

It is a relationship based on convenience. While Georgia districts are keen to use foreign teachers to fill empty classrooms, they do not want to sponsor them directly. Ward-Smith said she regularly has foreign teachers come to her at hiring fairs asking the district to sponsor their H-1B visa.

The district does not sponsor international teachers’ visas because of the “level of liabilities,” she said.

Some rights groups believe the system is exploitative by nature.

A study of the hiring of international teachers released last spring found five out of every six migrant teachers were working on a temporary visa and 81 percent were on fixed-term contracts, “making their positions precarious by definition.”

Education International, a global federation of teacher unions, considers “shortage hiring” — the kind of hiring done by Georgia school districts and districts across the country — to be most likely to land international teachers in poor schools with uncertain job security and limited support.

“Their ‘foreign’ status is not always valued and respected — many report that they face unequal treatment,” the group determined after surveying more than 1,300 migrant teachers worldwide.

While metro districts depend on recruitment agencies like Global, Education International found that most migrant teachers are recruited and hired directly by their school district. Only 10 percent of teachers surveyed by the organization came through a recruiting agency, but those 10 percent were more likely to be charged fees by their agency at “levels that can lead to debt bondage.”

Glanton said Global “employees are paid the same as any American teacher with like experience and certifications.”

That’s not true, since American teachers who work directly for school districts do not have an administrative fee deducted from their paychecks, they receive retirement benefits and have tenure within their districts. Teachers provided on contract get none of these benefits.

When asked if any American teacher likely would trade places with any of their international colleagues, Glanton said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Federal labor investigation

In the 2009 Labor Department investigation, a whistleblower, then a teacher in the Clayton County system, said she was paying her employer in monthly installments for visa fees and attorney fees. At the time, the labor department investigator said no other employee claimed to be paying such fees.

The investigation found that Global should have paid employees for their time attending workshops and penalized them $75,427 in back wages owed to 20 workers. The investigation also found shoddy record keeping and confusing decisions on when — or if — to pay their employees.

Investigators also took a hard look at the company’s practice of deducting an administrative fee from teachers’ paychecks.

Global claimed the administrative fee was “voluntary” and said some employees paid it and others didn’t. Global told the investigator the fee was to cover various expenses, including “guesthouse rent and utilities, food and transportation expenses” as well as “workshops/seminars and teacher support system” and that workers who needed that help paid the fee. Workers gave different explanations, including that it was to offset immigration costs or to cover administrative expenses of the company.

Global also told investigators employees paid the fee only for the first three years of employment.

In the prior investigation, the Labor Department determined the administrative fee was not illegal because the net pay going to the employees did not fall below the “prevailing wage” of a Georgia teacher as determined by the federal government. In metro Atlanta, the wages for a high school teacher range between $41,270 and $56,270, based on the federal database used by H-1B employers.

However, that wage generally is less than actual salary paid by metro Atlanta school districts for teachers with advanced degrees and years of experience, such as those employed by Global. The artificially low “prevailing” wage allowed Global to charge this amorphous fee without violating federal law.

In an interview with investigators in Jan. 2011, Glanton defended the fee and said it was still being charged. “Mr. Glanton also stated that this fee is paid for three years and the amount paid is reduced from 10 percent to 5 percent to 3 percent on a case-by-case basis.” The AJC interviewed several teachers who have been in the United States for much longer periods who still pay the fee.

In the interview with investigators, Glanton said he understood that attorney and visa fees cannot be charged back to the worker. But investigators said Global should have paid employees for time spent in training as well as time spent “getting Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, etc.”

“Mr. Glanton was advised that (Global) has to pay the H-1B worker from the time that H-1B worker makes him/herself available for employment,” the investigator wrote in the report. “Mr. Glanton agreed to future compliance with the H-1B provisions with regards to workers being paid from the time the worker has ‘entered into employment’ with (Global).”

According to the report, Glanton blamed the practice on company owner Paddy Sharma’s “family business” practices.

“He stated that the company is in the process of putting policies and procedures in place so that the business is operated as a business.”

Few dare to complain

Global faces nearly $2 million in IRS tax liens for back taxes and last month sent an unsigned memo to employees that attempted to quell rumors and “panic” about the company’s finances. The company blamed its financial problems on delayed payments from unnamed school districts.

“This causes a tremendous burden to our budget, budget process and payroll cycles,” the memo explained.

Begum, the Chamblee High teacher, describes Paddy Sharma, Global president, as a surrogate parent.

“Whenever I have any concerns, I approach her and she’s got my back. It’s really good,” she said.

Inequalities like the lack of a retirement plan or tenure that other teachers enjoy don’t faze her. When asked about the administrative fee Sharma collects from every paycheck for the past decade, Begum’s 1,000-watt smile dimmed a shade.

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head.

Despite all the shortcomings, few Global teachers gripe about the company. Those who voiced even modest complaints asked for complete anonymity, a testament perhaps to their insecure foothold in America.

Nibha Jha, a science teacher at Lakeside High School in north DeKalb, said she has no complaints, even when Global placed her in a high school in Mississippi for two years, meaning she regularly made the six-hour commute back to her family in Atlanta. Now she’s back in Atlanta and her son has graduated from Georgia State in computer science.

“Dr. Paddy Sharma, Mr. Glanton, they really do listen when we have any problems,” she said. “I owe everything to Dr. Paddy Sharma.”

She still has an administrative fee taken out of every paycheck, but she said it doesn’t bother her.

“We accepted those conditions, so we can say nothing about that,” she said. “They do not work for free.”

She is hopeful she might get a green card sometime this year, nine years after she first applied. If that happens, she plans to do something most teachers would take for granted — she will leave Global and apply for a job with the school district.

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