Category: Features

On February 18, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor vindicated the J-1 student guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) who went on strike from McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania in March 2013. The USDOL cited the McDonald’s franchisee for minimum wage violations against 291 fast food workers, awarding them $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages.

Below is a statement by NGA Executive Director Saket Soni:

Credit: Christine Baker |

Today, some of the most vulnerable workers in America—immigrant guestworkers—won a major victory not only for themselves, but for the U.S. workers alongside them. Brave student guestworkers from Argentina, Malaysia, and other countries defied threats of retaliation and went on strike to end the severe exploitation they faced at McDonald’s stores last year, including sub-minimum wage pay, unpaid overtime, and overpriced company housing. These NGA members won $205,977 in back wages and damages not only for the 178 guestworkers who worked at these McDonald’s stores, but for 113 U.S. fast food workers alongside them, including formerly incarcerated people and political refugees.

This victory comes as tens of thousands of McDonald’s workers around the U.S. are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. McDonald’s must meet those demands.

But this victory also shows that raising wages is not enough. As long as employers like McDonald’s can use threats of retaliation and deportation to exploit immigrant workers, the wages and conditions of the U.S. workers alongside them will never be secure. But by protecting the right to organize for the most vulnerable workers, we help raise the floor for every worker in the U.S.

President Obama stressed in his State of the Union that he’s ready to take executive action to combat income inequality. That action needs to include protections for immigrant workers who come forward to expose abuse from retaliatory deportation.

And now that the DOL has vindicated these workers, McDonald’s corporate can’t hide behind its franchisee and wash its hands of the abuse. McDonald’s must:

  1. Conduct an audit of its franchisees and reveal where else guestworkers are working so that NGA can ensure they are free from abuse;
  2. Publicly commit that when any McDonald’s franchisee commits wage theft or other labor law violations, McDonald’s corporate will take responsibility by making the workers whole and punishing the franchisee; and
  3. Meet the nationwide demand for a $15 an hour wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

The Nation

Soon we’ll all be stuck with the unjust working conditions that immigrants face: contingent jobs, with lousy pay and few or no benefits.

By Saket Soni

When members of Congress come back from recess, they could put our nation’s 11.7 million undocumented immigrant workers on a path to citizenship. But if they refuse to, as they did in 2013, they’ll be pushing US workers further down the path to becoming like low-wage immigrant workers. After all, our economy is already headed in exactly that direction.

Move over, farmers, factory workers and technology “creatives”—the emblematic American workers are now low-wage immigrant day laborers and guest workers. More and more, Americans are trapped in the uncertainty and injustice that immigrant workers know all too well, whether they’re here on temporary work visas cleaning luxury condos or undocumented and scrambling for daily construction jobs. Increasingly, from an economic standpoint, office parks and store aisles in America are coming to resemble the street corners where day laborers gather and the labor camps where guest workers are trapped. We can either continue to pretend that low-wage immigrant workers are on the fringes of our economy—that their problems are theirs alone—or we can face the fact that their conditions are what we’re all moving toward, and what millions of US-born workers already face.

Immigrant workers have long experienced vulnerability and instability, and have long been treated as disposable by their employers. Today, roughly one-third of American jobs are part-time, contract or otherwise “contingent.” And the number of contingent workers in the United States is expected to grow by more than one-third over the next four years. That means more and more families are without the benefits of full-time work, such as health insurance, pensions or 401(k)s. And more of us are without the employment certainty that leads to economic stability at home—and to the consumer spending that drives the economy.

In addition, while we are working longer and harder, wages are stagnant. Between 2000 and 2011, the US economy grew by more than 18 percent, while the median income for working families declined by 12.4 percent. Once upon a time, workers shared the economic prosperity of their employers: until 1975, wages accounted for more than 50 percent of America’s GDP. But by 2013, wages had fallen to a record low of just 43.5 percent of GDP. Overall compensation, which factors in healthcare and other benefits, has also hit bottom. Immigrants know where this downward spiral leads—just ask the Jamaican guest workers who cleaned luxury beach condos in Florida last summer and came away with paychecks for zero dollars and zero cents.

And like countless immigrant workers, more and more American workers are trapped in supply and subcontracting chains for big and powerful employers. From the late 1970s until the 2008 recession, small businesses were the prime generator of jobs in America, creating roughly 60 percent of all employment. That percentage has been swiftly declining ever since. The percentage of business loans going to small start-ups has also declined. And yet small businesses generally pay higher wages than large corporations, and a significantly higher percentage of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the community and further boosts the local economy, as opposed to dollars fleeing to often distant corporate headquarters. But when large employers dominate an industry or town, they have unchecked power to drive down wages and working conditions—or, in some cases, to try to avoid paying any wages at all. In 2012, Walmart agreed to pay $4.83 million in overdue back wages to more than 4,500 workers. And conditions don’t get much worse than those of guest workers in the Walmart supply chain who exposed captive labor at a company called CJ’s Seafood that same year, where a supervisor threatened to beat workers with a shovel to make them work faster.

The United States, which presents itself as a global beacon of opportunity and prosperity, is quickly becoming a low-wage nation. America’s immigrant workers are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine—and the coal mine extends from construction sites to supermarkets to Silicon Valley.

We as a nation will be ill equipped to address this profound shift as long as we cling to the divisive vision of an “us and them” economy. Some Americans resist immigration reform because they sense the transformation in the nature of work in our country and make immigrants the target of their justified anxiety. In fact, all US workers—immigrants and US-born, low-wage and higher-wage, temporary and full-time—are increasingly in the same boat. The sooner we realize that we all face the predicament of immigrant workers, the sooner we can work together to solve structural inequality in our economy instead of fighting over the crumbs.


Subcontractor Servitude – New York Times op-ed

By Jennifer Gordon

Sep. 2, 2013

THE words “guest workers” and “strike” are not often seen together. Yet twice this summer, members of a group of more than 150 Jamaican guest workers who clean luxury Florida hotels and condos walked off the job. The workers came to the United States in April anticipating a summer of hard work and decent earnings to send home. Instead, they encountered the black hole of labor subcontracting.

Labor-recruitment firms brought the workers from Jamaica to the Florida Panhandle. Cleaning contractors hired them and then leased them out to scrub toilets and sweep sand from floors for vacation property companies.

By the time the workers first went on strike, in June, they had much to protest. They had borrowed to pay recruitment fees of $2,000 to $2,500, counting on promises of full-time work and good housing. But in Florida, the cleaning company packed as many as 15 people into unfurnished two-bedroom apartments, for which it collected as much as $5,000 a month. Charges for rent and required extras like $70 for a T-shirt “uniform” reduced the workers’ net pay to subminimum levels, sometimes even zero, and — the final insult — paychecks repeatedly bounced. Children back home waited for money that never came.

Those problems typify the debt, fraud and coercion that plague guest-work programs in the United States. An estimated 700,000 to a million guest workers and their families enter the country each year, mostly to work in low-wage industries but also as nurses, teachers, computer programmers and the like. When guest workers are exploited, it lowers the floor for American workers, too.

H-2B visas, the class of visas held by the Jamaicans, are reserved for temporary or seasonal work for which there are not enough “able, willing, qualified and available” Americans — but of course, availability depends on the wages and working conditions on offer. Florida’s unemployment rate has been stuck at over 7 percent, so it seems unlikely that no local cleaners could be found.

Guest workers, however, offer something hiring a local worker does not: subservience. They are tied by law to the employer who sponsored their visas, which means that if they are found too “difficult” for any reason — including asking that their rights be respected — the employer can effectively deport them and blacklist them from receiving future work visas.

When the Jamaican cleaners struck the first time, protesting their stolen wages and miserable living conditions, the cleaning company stapled a notice to their paycheck stating that immigration authorities and local law enforcement would escort anyone who didn’t return the next day to the airport, to fly home.

The Jamaicans’ situation is part of a broader phenomenon of subcontracting. The structure of work has shifted since the 1980s, for workers from Manhattan office cleaners to Bangladeshi garment stitchers. The National Employment Law Project reports that 58 percent of jobs added during the recovery have been in low-wage sectors, which have high levels of contingent and subcontracted jobs. Today, almost all production in global manufacturing involves subcontracting. It is central to the structure of employment in the American construction, warehousing and agricultural industries as well.

Subcontractors compete on the price of labor. Where production can’t travel, they move workers across borders, with recruiters’ help. They also shield businesses from legal liability for the treatment of workers and from labor-organizing efforts. Three steps are essential to curbing the system’s worst abuses.

First is immigration reform that protects all workers: When guest workers can defend their rights, the millions who labor alongside them benefit as well. Immigration law must be amended to forbid employers from charging guest workers exorbitant fees directly or through recruiters and to protect those who report abuses from retaliation. The bill passed by the Senate this summer is far from perfect, but it restricts what recruiters can charge and would allow guest workers and other immigrants in a serious labor dispute to change jobs and stay in the country. In contrast, the guest-worker bill House Republicans are threatening to introduce lacks those protective features entirely and would bring in many more workers, on much worse terms.

A second necessary reform is legal responsibility along the contracting chain. If workers in a subcontracting chain are abused, the firms at the top of the chain that benefit from their labor should not be insulated from financial responsibility. An innovative California law penalizes a firm for its subcontractor’s workplace violations if the firm did not pay the subcontractor enough for it to comply with all applicable labor laws. In Britain, the quaintly named Gangmasters Licensing Authority can penalize a firm in the food sector if its labor contractor violates the law. In the Philippines, recruiters are held responsible if they place a worker into a job abroad that violates national laws on overseas employment. Such joint liability should be the standard in subcontracting arrangements.

Third is reform of labor laws. Before their second strike, on Aug. 17, the Jamaicans sought help from the National Guestworker Alliance (a nonprofit advocacy group, but not a union) and filed a complaint with the Labor Department. Other subcontracted workers are members of traditional unions, but the National Labor Relations Act restricts their ability to protest against the employer who actually holds the purse strings in a subcontracting chain, or to bargain collectively with that employer. It is time to repeal this damaging restriction.

This Labor Day, a group of courageous workers in Florida remind us that the right to fair working conditions is one that no company should be able to subcontract its way out of.

Jennifer Gordon is a professor of law at Fordham.

Meet Denise. She’s one of 150 H-2B guestworkers from Jamaica who was leased out by a Florida contractor to clean luxury condos for Republican political donors.

Denise and her fellow workers faced brutal housing conditions, zero-dollar checks, and written threats that they would be deported by immigration police in retaliation for speaking out against the abuse.

Meanwhile, the companies that were profiting from the workers’ labor donated $174,000 to prominent politicians — including some of the very Republicans blocking immigration reform.

“I felt like I was under bondage,” Denise said. “With the threats, we didn’t know where to turn.”

But Denise and her fellow workers refused to be silent. They joined the NGA and came forward to expose the abuse. They won a breakthrough pledge by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to collude with the employer in deporting the workers.

The workers are now calling on those politicians to reject the dirty money and stand against the abuse of immigrant workers—starting with U.S. Representatives Jeff Miller (FL-1) and Steve Southerland (FL-2), in whose districts the abuse took place.
Tell the politicians: Give back the profits from guestworker abuse, and support immigration reform with strong worker politicians!

Tell the politicians: Give back the profits from guestworker abuse, and support immigration reform with strong worker politicians!

On August 26, the Jamaican guestworkers who exposed labor abuse in Florida joined fellow workers in East Orange, NJ, who also faced retaliation and threats of deportation for organizing.

The workers, together with the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) Local 55 and the National Day Laborer Organizing Center (NDLON), put Benjamin H. Realty and companies like it on notice that workers all over the country won’t give in to intimidation, and are organizing against labor abuse.

Jamaican worker Denise Garner called on Benjamin H. to stop using immigration enforcement as a weapon against worker whistleblowers. The story of the Benjamin H. workers, like her own, shows why all workers need comprehensive immigration reform with the strong worker protections in the POWER Act.

Exploitation Isn’t ‘Cultural Exchange’
Roll Call

Jennifer J. Rosenbaum
July 19, 2013

In a July 15 Roll Call opinion piece, “Don’t Devalue Exchange Programs in Immigration Reform,” Michael Petrucelli argues that the Senate immigration bill was wrong to include basic labor protections for the more than 100,000 student guestworkers who come to the U.S. each year through the J-1 visa program. Petrucelli argues that these workers aren’t really workers, but cultural exchange participants, and that the J-1 Exchange Visitor program isn’t really a guestworker program, but a tool of public diplomacy.

Mr. Petrucelli’s view of the program is several decades behind the times. The J-1 program was created in 1965 as a Cold War-era diplomatic tool—a way to convince young visitors from around the world of the virtues of American culture. But today’s J-1 student guestworkers know what even program staff now admit: the J-1 program has been transformed by employers into a vast, poorly regulated, low-wage temp worker program, where severe exploitation is par for the course.

That’s precisely why immigration reform needs to extend basic labor protections to future J-1 guestworkers — together with all immigrant workers.

Abuse in the J-1 program became too big to ignore in the summer of 2011, when 400 student guestworkers went on strike from the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., protesting brutal conditions, sub-minimum wage pay and a complete lack of any cultural exchange. The story demonstrated how major U.S. corporations were exploiting the program as a way to undercut local workers: the positions the students filled had previously been permanent, living-wage jobs with a union contract. Then Hershey’s fired those workers and used layers of subcontractors to replace them with a year-round succession of exploitable J-1 students.

In the aftermath of the Hershey revelation, the U.S. State Department, which administers the J-1 visa program, admitted that the program was out of control:

“In the midst of unfettered program growth, ECA lost sight of the original intent of some J visa programs,” the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General wrote in February 2012. “The OIG team questions the appropriateness of allowing what are essentially work programs to masquerade as cultural exchange activities.”

The State Department made some changes to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program to try to curb employer abuse, including barring the construction, manufacturing and food processing industries from the program. Acknowledging how far the program had fallen from its original purpose, the State Department said that future job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs.”

The changes didn’t go far enough. This February, another major case of J-1 program abuse emerged at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. Again, in place of “cultural exchange,” student guestworkers from around the world faced sub-minimum wage pay and overpriced, substandard housing. The abuse sparked a day of protest against McDonald’s labor abuse in more than 30 countries this June.

Mr. Petrucelli says that as immigration reform moves forward, “it will be important to remain mindful of those things that add value to the nation.” He’s right.

Every time a J-1 guestworker defies threats of firing and deportation to come forward and expose abuse, it adds value to the nation. It protects the job quality of tens of millions of U.S. workers by preventing a race to the bottom.

The worker protections in the Senate bill were supported by J-1 sponsors who agree that there is no place for workplace exploitation in the program. Mr. Petrucelli is in the minority in his support for the worst kind of “cultural exchange” — one that rewards abusive employers and offers students no protections.

The provisions received bipartisan support in the Senate, as they should in the House. Anyone who believes in the value of true cultural exchange as well as the dignity of work — for immigrant and U.S. workers — should support them.

Labor journalists Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe discuss the NGA’s #McDonald’sMustPay Global Day of Action on their weekly podcast Belabored.
By Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe
Podcast (belabored): Download

Subscribe to the Belabored RSS feed here. Subscribe and rate on iTunes here. Tweet at @dissentmag with #belabored to share your thoughts, or join the conversation on Facebook. Belabored is produced by Natasha Lewis.

Kicking off a new regular feature on Belabored, Josh and Sarah provide a detailed explainer on wage theft. What is it, why and how do bosses get away with it, and how do we stop it? Explainers will be a part of the show going forward, so send us your questions, suggestions, and terms you’d like to hear defined. Hashtag, as always, #belabored.

They also discuss the uprisings in Turkey and the role of labor unions, international actions targeting McDonald’s, the ongoing conflict at Palermo’s Pizza, and an independent organizing campaign at an upscale New York deli.

No More Captive Workers
Jennifer J. Rosenbaum

Roll Call
June 10, 2013

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.


Check out NGA’s Flickr page for more photos from the Global Day of Action


Chicago Workers Protest Low Wages, Treatment of McDonald’s Employees On Global Day Of Action (VIDEO)

Progress Illinois

“Unfortunately, McDonald’s has continued to claim that they treat their workers with dignity and respect, and there’s a lot of opportunity, when in fact most of these workers have no benefits, they’re earning the minimum wage, they have no sick leave,” he said.


International guestworkers protest against McDonald’s for labor abuse allegations

“On Thursday, protests were held in more than 30 countries targeting McDonald’s for alleged labor abuse against international student guestworkers.”


Unite Union to Join Global Day of Action against McDonald’s

“So that is how he spoilt all my work visa by misusing me and when I am nearly finishing visa, who can give me job at this time.”

Action de solidarité au restaurant McDonald’s

FGTB Horval – Belgium

Cet établissement a été choisi, parce que il s’agit du premier restaurant de Mc Donald’s ouvert en Belgique. Une journée mondiale d’action se déroule aujourd’hui dans les restaurants de Mc Donald’s dans plus de 30 pays aux quatre coins du monde.


Belabored Podcast #9: Who Stole My Wages?

Dissent Magazine

Labor journalists Josh Eidelson and Sarah Jaffe discuss the NGA’s #McDonald’sMustPay Global Day of Action on their weekly podcast Belabored.

Images of the Day – June 6th 2013












Action de solidarité au restaurant Mc Donald’s


Cet établissement a été choisi, parce que il s’agit du premier restaurant de Mc Donald’s ouvert en Belgique. Une journée mondiale d’action se déroule aujourd’hui dans les restaurants de Mc Donald’s dans plus de 30 pays aux quatre coins du monde. 


Boca de Polen, 4-juni0-13
6 de junio, Día de Acción Global contra McDonald’s

Asociación Lationoamericana de Educación Radiofónica, 6 –junio-13
México: Día de Acción Global contra McDonald’s

La Jornada, 6-junio-2013
“Clausuran” McDonald’s del Zócalo por violación a derechos laborales

SDP Noticias, 6-junio-2013
“Clausuran McDonald’s sucursal Zócalo

El Diario de México, 6-junio-13
“Cierran” McDonald’s en el centro

24 horas. El diario sin límites, 6-junio-2013
McDonald’s del Zócalo fue “cerrado” por violar derechos laborales

Vanguardia, 6-junio-2013
McDonald’s del Zócalo capitalino fue “cerrado” por violar derechos laborales

La Jornada, 7-06-2013
Clausura simbólica de McDonald’s

Photos from the Global Day of Action

[flickrps max_num_photos=”100″ no_pages=”true”]

Protests Begin in 30+ Countries to Target McDonald’s Labor Abuse

Student guestworker fight from U.S. becomes global campaign against labor abuse, for freedom of association

WHAT:  Global day of action in 30+ countries against McDonald’s labor abuse

WHO:  National Guestworker Alliance members, current and former McDonald’s workers, global unions, and community members

WHERE: McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., Belgium, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Paraguay, Philippines, Slovakia, Thailand, Uruguay, and more (see for details)

WHEN: Thursday, June 6, 2013



NEW YORK, NY—A Global Day of Action against McDonald’s labor abuse began on June 6 with protests in IndonesiaIndia, and Belgium – three of more than 30 countries holding actions over the course of the day.

Workers, international unions, and community members are demanding that McDonald’s take responsibility for ending the abuse of international contract workers at its restaurants, and guarantee all its workers the freedom to organize without threats or retaliation at all 34,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide.

The actions mark the three-month anniversary of a historic strike by McDonald’s student guestworkers in the U.S. against labor abuse.

Joining the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) in organizing the actions are members of national and global unions, students, and human rights organizations including IUF affiliates around the globe, Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC) in Mexico, Ver.di in Germany, New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) in India, and affiliates of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The March 2013 exposé of McDonald’s labor abuse against student guestworkers in the U.S. created an international media firestorm, from the Wall Street Journal to Argentina’s Misiones.

The students’ strike forced McDonald’s to cut ties with the franchisee where the students worked, but McDonald’s refused to meet with the students about ending labor abuse—even when they delivered 100,000 petitions to the CEO’s doorstep. They and their allies will demand that McDonald’s put an end abuse of international contract labor by signing an agreement with the guestworkers in its restaurants, and guarantee freedom of association for all its workers worldwide.

Cases of labor abuse at McDonald’s show the fast food giant’s failure to set even the most basic labor standards for any of the 1.8 million workers at its 34,000 restaurants around the world. McDonald’s sets standards for its franchise owners on trivial aspects of food presentation—while having no standards to protect the workers who generate $27.6 billion in annual revenue for the corporation.

“McDonald’s used a global labor supply chain to source cheap, exploitable workers from around the world and hold down wages and conditions for U.S. workers,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the NGA. “Now workers have built a global movement to challenge McDonald’s abuse and demand the right to organize against abuse.”



Donate now!

Your donation will support workers' fight to end forced labor, wage theft, and exploitation -- for guestworkers and U.S. workers alike!


Sign Up for Email Updates

Email Address: