No More Captive Workers | Commentary
As the Senate votes this week on amendments to the immigration bill drafted by the “gang of eight,” it needs to make sure that it doesn’t bring one group of immigrant workers out of the shadows while trapping another in captive labor.
Hundreds of guestworkers have emerged from labor camps across America in recent years to expose severe labor abuse in federal temporary worker programs. From food processing to construction, from the Wal-Mart seafood supply chain to the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant, guestworkers have revealed how employers and their recruiters abuse guestworker programs as a source of cheap, exploitable labor. When they do, they also drive down wages and conditions for tens of millions of U.S. workers who work alongside guestworkers.
Americans understand this connection, which is why they overwhelmingly support including guestworker protections in immigration reform. In a recent national poll by the CAMBIO coalition, 75 percent agreed that “if employers are allowed to get away with mistreating immigrant workers, it ends up lowering wages and hurting conditions for American workers as well.” Eighty perfect agreed that “immigrant workers who blow the whistle on abusive employers are helping defend workplace standards and should have the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to work towards citizenship.”
The current Senate bill would provide one small category of guestworkers — those on the proposed W visa — whistle-blower protections and the ability to change employers without losing legal status. But the bill risks leaving hundreds of thousands of guestworkers subject to captive labor. And lobbyists are pushing to make sure that there are as many of those guestworkers as possible.
Over the past week, guestworker recruiters have raced to Capitol Hill to argue that key worker protections shouldn’t apply to the J-1 student guestworker program. In fact, the J-1 program has been the site of some of the most egregious cases of guestworker abuse.
In August 2011, hundreds of J-1 student guestworkers from around the world joined the National Guestworker Alliance and went on strike from a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania. They had been recruited from universities around the world, and had paid $3,000-6,000 apiece for promises of a cultural exchange and dignified work. Instead found themselves packing chocolates for Hershey’s under brutal conditions, living in squalid, overpriced housing and facing threats of retaliatory firing and deportation from recruiters and supervisors.
The State Department ultimately barred Hershey’s labor recruiter CETUSA from the J-1 Summer Work Travel program. But there were other unscrupulous recruiters ready to take its place — and other major American corporations ready to profit from exploitation.
In March, just blocks from where the Hershey’s student guestworkers had been housed, J-1 student guestworkers went on strike from three McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. They too had faced brutal work conditions — including shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay — as well as wage theft, inadequate housing and threats of deportation when they raised concerns.
These stories of guestworker abuse reached the pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They reached guestworkers’ home countries, 30 of which hosted a global day of protest on June 6 against the abuse of guestworkers at McDonald’s.
Then last week, they reached Senate floor. During debate of the Senate immigration bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said: “I fear very much that this J-1 program is being exploited by corporations like Hershey’s and McDonald’s as an effort to simply bring students from abroad to work at low-paying jobs in the United States.”
Severe exploitation of guestworkers has become commonplace across visa categories. As the Senate makes the final changes to its immigration bill in coming weeks, it needs to include strong worker protections for all guestworkers, regardless of visa program or industry. That includes whistleblower protections for workers who come forward to expose employer abuse, the ability for guestworkers to change employers without losing legal status and rules that prevent recruiters from profiting from exploitation.
It’s not just the future of guestworkers at stake — it’s the future of the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.
Jennifer J. Rosenbaum is the legal and policy director of the National Guestworker Alliance.