Category: Features

KahInn Lee is a former McDonald’s guestworker on the front lines of immigration reform.

A McDonald’s franchisee used KahInn and other guestworkers as a sub-minimum wage, exploitable workforce—but the workers stood up to expose the abuse and stop it.

Corporations like McDonald’s want to hugely expand guestworker programs through immigration reform, while leaving out basic protections for guestworkers and the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them in the same industries.

Stand with workers like KahInn: sign the petition to tell Congress that immigration reform must include key guestworker protections—for the sake of ALL America’s workers.

Meet Martha.

Last year she was a guestworker exposing forced labor in a Louisiana labor camp.

This year she’s on the frontlines of immigration reform.

Watch Martha’s video to see how Walmart’s low prices trapped her in forced labor—and how she blew the whistle on forced labor on the Walmart supply chain.

When whistleblowers like Martha come forward, they protect the wages and conditions of the 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in the same industries.

Stand with Martha: sign the petition to tell Congress that immigration reform must protect immigrant whistleblowers—for the sake of ALL America’s workers.

24 million reasons to protect immigrant whistleblowers

The Hill – May 17, 2004

By Saket Soni

In a U.S. economy where tens of millions are struggling, guest workers on H-2B visas are trapped at the bottom. These so-called “low skilled” temporary workers occupy fields from hospitality to construction to landscaping to food processing — alongside 24 million U.S. workers in the same sectors. And the job quality of those 24 million depends on whether guest workers can blow the whistle on abuse.

To understand why, take Ana Diaz. Ana came to the United States from Mexico last year as an H-2B guest worker. Ana peeled crawfish for a Wal-Mart supplier in Louisiana who subjected her and her fellow guest workers to shifts of up to 24 hours with no overtime pay. Supervisors locked them into the plant to prevent breaks, and threatened to beat them with a shovel to make them work faster. When workers complained, the boss responded with threats of violence against them and their families.

Ana’s story is far from unique. The National Guestworker Alliance has worked with thousands of guest workers facing severe employer abuse, from wage theft to forced labor. When workers try to blow the whistle, employers retaliate to scare them into silence.

Big business is seeking access to as many cheap, exploitable guest workers as possible through immigration reform. The current Senate immigration bill is set to give them just that. The bill would hugely expand the H-2B program over the next four years, from 66,000 workers to 264,000, without providing key protections for H-2B whistle-blowers.

Why does this matter for U.S. workers? Because the conditions of workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy — guest workers like Ana — help determine the job quality of the more than 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside them in the same sectors. When employers can get away with exploiting guest workers, it forces U.S. workers into a race to the bottom, driving down wages and conditions for all.

Americans already know this. In a national poll this March, 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.” In the same poll, 89 percent agreed that “immigration reform should protect the rights of both U.S. born and immigrant workers, because all workers deserve dignity and freedom from exploitation.” Eighty percent 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.”

Tens of millions of U.S. workers already feel the floor falling. Their wages, conditions, and job security are eroding every day. If the workers at the bottom don’t have basic whistle-blower protections, the bottom will continue to fall. At the end of this process, all work in America would look like guest work: low-wage, unstable and deeply exploitative.

But when guest workers can stand up against employer abuse, they help lift the floor for all workers. Wages and conditions are more secure. Ana and her fellow guest workers showed real bravery last June, defying threats of violence, deportation and blacklisting to go public about the abuse they endured. By becoming whistle-blowers, they helped both to protect other guest workers from abuse, and to secure the job quality of millions of U.S. workers.

Whistle-blowers like Ana are standing up to help protect American workers. Shouldn’t American workers stand up to protect them?

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has introduced an amendment to the Senate immigration bill that would do just that. It would provide key protections to let H-2B whistle-blowers stand up against employer abuse without fear of retaliation. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded with a clear show of bipartisan support for the amendment, but it has yet to be added to the bill.

It is critical that the Senate immigration bill include these protections — for the future of all America’s workers.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

From INEDIM (Instituto de Estudios y Divulgación sobre Migración), an important new report on migrant workers, social security, and the dynamics of temporary labor migrations. 

From the report’s introduction:

Thousands of people cross international lines in search of a better life or a better security for them and their families. Although some migrants move with the desire to improve their income, many are forced to leave their homes because of poverty or famine, other natural disasters and even violent conflict, or because they are persecuted.

The report, ¿Quo Vadis? Reclutamiento y contratación de trabajadores migrantes y su acceso a la seguridad social: dinámica de los sistemas de trabajo temporal migratorio en Norte y Centroamérica, offers an excellent opportunity to learn in depth the current state of this phenomenon, but also an opportunity for reflection on the search to improve the design and implementation of immigration policies which are meant to protect the rights of temporary migrant workers in this region.

Download the full report here (PDF 1.7 MB) or view below.


WASHINGTON – After a building collapse in Bangladesh that has reportedly killed more than 200 garment workers this week, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the senior Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called on Wal-Mart, which subcontracted with this facility, to commit to improving conditions.

“The recent actions taken by the company on a voluntary basis are not working to alleviate the deadly negligence that continues to cause so much human loss and suffering. What is needed are the binding commitments that are included in [the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety] Agreement,” wrote Miller. “As one of the nation’s wealthiest and largest employers, Wal-Mart has a unique role and responsibility to do the right thing and set the best standard not just here in America, but in the rest of the world. The situation in Bangladesh remains unacceptable for any employer much less our nation’s largest.”

The Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement is a non-governmental organization proposal that would help to prevent these types of disasters from occurring. The agreement would establish a system of independent factory inspections and comprehensive preventive measures that includes consulting with workers whose lives are in danger as a result of sweatshop conditions employed by suppliers.

Earlier this month, Rep. Miller met with human rights leaders and a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 workers in November 2012, and called on U.S. brands to commit resources to prevent fires.

Read the letter:

April 25, 2013

Mr. Michael Duke
Chief Executive Officer
702 SW 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716-8611

Dear Mr. Duke:

Yet another tragedy occurred in Bangladesh yesterday, where an eight-story building that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing at least 194 people, injuring more than 1,000 others, and leaving an unknown number of people trapped in the rubble. According to media reports, factory owners appeared to have ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected. Of greater concern is that these deaths were apparently forewarned and preventable, because a bank in the same building evacuated its staff. According to a Bloomberg News report on Wednesday, a BRAC Bank spokesman said the bank had “evacuated our staff yesterday… Other commercial units did not do the same.”

Only five months ago, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed at least 112 garment workers. In both cases, Wal-Mart was linked to the factories as a direct buyer or through intermediaries.

In view of this, I would ask Wal-Mart to move immediately to join efforts to provide appropriate relief and compensation; support a thorough investigation into the causes of the building collapse; and, most importantly to prevent future tragedies, join the binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement that has been proposed by non-governmental organizations worldwide and lead the corporate retail world in preventing these disasters from happening. The Agreement would establish a system of independent factory inspections and comprehensive preventive measures that include consulting with workers whose lives are in jeopardy as a result of sweatshop conditions employed by your suppliers.

The recent actions taken by the company on a voluntary basis are not working to alleviate the deadly negligence that continues to cause so much human loss and suffering. What are needed are the binding commitments that are included in this Agreement.

As one of the nation’s wealthiest and largest employers, Wal-Mart has a unique role and responsibility to do the right thing and set the best standard not just here in America, but in the rest of the world. The situation in Bangladesh remains unacceptable for any employer much less our nation’s largest.

I would urge you to take a personal interest and active role in resolving this issue as soon as possible. Again, I urge you to join the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement and ensure that garment workers do not continue to tragically lose their lives.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. I look forward to your response.


Senior Democratic Member

“Labor protections have to include protections from abusive employers who retaliate against workers when they blow the whistle on abuse” – NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz on MSNBC

Part One


Part Two


Deal Pending on Immigration Reform

Warren Olney
April 1, 2013

Just as Senators of both parties were announcing that “comprehensive immigration reform” was finally a done deal, it turned out that it might not be after all.  Will a guest-worker program for unskilled immigrants kill it again, or will it be border security, a “path to citizenship” or one of the other complications that have scuttled it in the past? NGA Executive Director Saket Soni discusses the proposed expansion of the guestworker program and the labor protections that need to be included.

Skip to 8:00 for the immigration piece.

Guest Workers As Bellwether
Dissent Magazine

Josh Eidelson
April 1, 2013

By the time Martha Uvalle’s boss threatened to have her children assaulted, she’d already lowered her expectations. Uvalle, a forty-year-old from Tamalipas, Mexico, has come to Louisiana as a guest worker every year since 2006. “I came to fulfill the American Dream,” Uvalle told me with a laugh in November. Her choice to become a guest worker was “difficult, because you know you’re leaving your children.” But given “the chance to make a little money . . . you decide the sacrifice is worth it.” Each year, Uvalle worked for two to five months for CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, supplying shrimp to companies including the retail giant Wal-Mart. “You have the costs here, the costs there, the costs to come here, so you really can’t save any money.” She also took out high-interest loans to pay for the costs of the travel. Still, “it’s more than you can make in Mexico. But it’s not what I was expecting.” (Interviews with Uvalle and other guest workers were conducted in Spanish.)

For years, the hours at CJ’s were long, and the work was hard. Then, in 2011, Mike LeBlanc replaced his father as the head of the company. “That,” said CJ’s worker Ana Rosa Diaz, “was when it started to get out of control.” Workers say they were required to come to work earlier and stay later, sometimes working as many as sixteen to twenty-four hours straight. Management installed security cameras in the plant and also around the company-owned trailers where the workers lived. Workers say management imposed a curfew, threatened to confiscate the keys to their cars, and told them they couldn’t have visitors. Worse, one of the managers repeatedly said, “If you don’t understand that your break is over, I’ll make you understand with this shovel.” Uvalle understood: “He was saying he would beat us.”

The worst day at CJ’s, Uvalle remembered, was “the day of the threat.” It came after LeBlanc heard that a worker had attempted to report him to the police. Workers say they were called into a mandatory meeting where LeBlanc told them that if any of them got him in trouble, he wouldn’t just get them deported forever. He would send armed men to assault their families back in Mexico.

“I came here to make a better quality of life for myself and my kids, not to get threatened—and especially not to get my children threatened,” said Uvalle.

Last summer, the Worker Rights Consortium, an international labor monitoring group, investigated and affirmed the workers’ allegations of forced labor. WRC executive director Scott Nova told me that although the group generally investigates conditions outside the United States, what he found at CJ’s were among the worst he’s ever seen. But they’re not a fluke. Saket Soni, the executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, called such abuses “the norm, rather than the exception.” Guest workers face a system designed not just to press down wages but to stifle resistance.

Guest labor has long been a linchpin for some U.S. industries, and a flashpoint in U.S. politics. Most famously, the bracero program, begun by bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, facilitated over 4 million total trips by Mexican temporary workers to the United States; it was abolished in 1964 amid criticism from civil rights activists. As pseudo-stateless workers, guest workers face all of the obstacles confronting any U.S. workers who try to organize, and then some.

What set the CJ’s workers apart, more than the abuses they suffered, is how some of them responded: against all odds, they went on strike.

The CJ’s workers are among hundreds of thousands of guest workers who come to the United States each year. These workers range from Mexicans shelling shrimp in a border state on guest worker visas to the group of Turkish and Chinese students, brought to the United States for a “cultural exchange,” who found themselves laboring in a Hershey’s chocolate factory in rural Pennsylvania. NGA, which helped organize strikes at both CJ’s and the Hershey Company, says such showdowns will help shape the future of work in the United States.

“Employers for a century have been trying to import workers who have something less than full citizenship,” says historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara. From a management perspective, he said, “They’re the perfect workers.”

NGA, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, is one of hundreds of non-union labor groups organizing workers who’ve been betrayed by New Deal labor laws. It shares a tax filing and a house-turned-office with another of the Workers’ Center’s projects, a group organizing homeless New Orleans locals and public housing tenants. Like other alternative labor groups, it depends on foundation funding for most of its budget.

As is the case with domestic workers, guest workers are too often invisible in popular discussions of work; when they appear, it’s as outliers. But Soni, who founded the NGA amid the city’s post-Katrina guest worker influx, says they’re better understood as a bellwether. “You can see what work will look like unless there’s strong intervention by people like us.”
That’s because these workers represent what’s happening to U.S. work in three critical ways. First, precarity: Workers lack job security, formal contracts, or guaranteed hours. Second, legal exclusion: Labeled as “independent contractors,” “domestic workers” or otherwise, they’re thrust beyond the reach of this country’s creaky, craven labor laws. And third, the mystification of employment: While a no-name contracted company signs your paycheck, your conditions are set by a major corporation with far away headquarters and legal impunity. These linked trends are both causes and consequences of the ongoing de-unionization of the United States.

These trends burst into public view at that Hershey’s factory in 2011, when student workers from several countries staged a sit-in and walkout. Lured by the promise of a cultural exchange, the students alleged, they’d unwittingly been used as replacements on unionized, good-paying jobs. The striking workers marched through Hershey, a company town where lampposts are in the shape of the iconic Hershey kisses, chanting in several languages and dancing to hip-hop music from home.

Those workers won the support of local organized labor, and scrutiny from national media. They directed their demands not at their legal employer, but up the supply chain. Like the CJ’s workers, they used industrial action and a comprehensive campaign to hold their “real boss” accountable for their conditions. For the Pennsylvania workers, that was the Hershey Company, which was insulated from them by five layers of sub-contracting. For workers at CJ’s and many other unknown companies, it’s Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart is the one who provokes all of this,” says CJ’s striker Diaz, “because they want to get everything the cheapest, and sell it the cheapest. They’re the one really stepping on us.” NGA’s lead organizer Jacob Horwitz added that, while LeBlanc was no good guy, it may not be possible to follow the law and keep a Wal-Mart contract.

Wal-Mart initially told reporters that it had investigated the CJ’s workers’ allegations, and couldn’t find evidence to substantiate them. But the company eventually announced it had suspended CJ’s as a supplier—weeks after the workers went on strike.

“It’s become really, really clear to us,” said Soni, that “what’s at stake is not merely lower wages but the transformation of entire industries, and the disappearance of rights, respect, and a contract. In effect, guest workers are used to push the bottom even further down.”

Guest workers, he added, are “really predicting what the majority will look like if we don’t intervene in exactly the way that the CJ’s workers and so many workers have done in recent months.”

Few workers have an easy time organizing in the contemporary United States. Labor laws do little to restrain companies from union-busting or compel them to honor workers’ expressed wish for collective bargaining. Workers face a very real risk that their efforts to change their job will leave them without one. Employment-at-will and management-by-fiat provide companies with countless levers to reward or punish. These obstacles face workers throughout the United States, including the Walmart retail workers now staging their own rebellion. But each of these challenges is exacerbated for the country’s guest workers, for whom Wagner Act collective bargaining isn’t an option, worksites shut down at least once a year, and bosses control not just jobs but a worker’s ability to stay in the country—or ever come back.

Workers say management keeps control through the threat of “the black list”—the power to ensure that no employer brings them back to work in the United States again. In interviews with Louisiana guest workers, I heard the word impotencia (powerlessness) again and again.

“This is everyone’s fear,” said Diaz. “Are they going to bring us back next year, or not? . . . If I lose the chance to come back, what will happen to my children, to their education? How will I eat?”

At CJ’s, Diaz and Uvalle said that LeBlanc’s threat to have their families assaulted drove some workers even further into fear. But it drove a few of them to take action. Uvalle and Diaz got Horwitz’s phone number from a guest worker at a different shrimp company, summoned the courage to call him, and began meeting in secret. Because management monitored their outside-work activities, they had to come up with excuses for where they were going. Horwitz said their meetings would frequently be interrupted by cell phone calls from the boss’s wife, checking up on their whereabouts; Diaz would say that they were shopping, and running late.

Eventually, Uvalle and Diaz decided to test the waters among a few co-workers they knew well, who they thought might be sympathetic. When they were satisfied that these co-workers were sufficiently worked up, they announced that they were driving straight to a meeting with the NGA.

The CJ’s workers settled on a plan to approach their boss as a group with a list of modest demands: providing a full lunch break, turning off some of the cameras, and firing the supervisor who kept threatening to beat them with shovels.

LeBlanc rebuffed them, and they told him they were on strike. “He didn’t believe it,” said Uvalle. “He couldn’t get it into his head. He said you have to go back to work . . . . And we said no.” They went through the plant asking co-workers to join them. None did; instead, two of the workers who’d been involved got cold feet. That left eight workers on strike. “Everyone was too afraid,” said Uvalle. “They thought we were crazy.”

Those eight workers did not shut down their workplace, as strikers used to (and sometimes still do). They didn’t win collective bargaining with their employer, as the law claims (most) workers can. But they did draw national media attention to CJ’s, and to Wal-Mart. Workers held simultaneous hunger fasts in Mexico and outside a Wal-Mart board member’s New York City mansion. They lobbied officials from both countries’ governments. They brought in the WRC to document their allegations. Through those efforts, they shamed Wal-Mart into suspending CJ’s, built political support for legal reform, and offered a cautionary tale for employers and a cause for hope for other guest workers.

In other words, they used the kinds of comprehensive campaign tactics that have increasingly come to typify successful labor struggles in the United States: a blend of workplace activism and media, consumer, legal, and political pressure. Such tactics characterize the growing array of groups organizing workers excluded from union recognition, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to the National Taxi Workers Alliance. But these tactics have also become a necessary component of successful union struggles, from fast food workers’ attempt to win a union to the efforts of union members at American Crystal Sugar to end the twenty-month lockout by their employer.

“Having workers on strike is the strongest leverage,” says Soni. “Given the level of abuse and the level of motivation among workers, it is absolutely going to happen that the NGA is going to force the marketing boards, the industry boards of these industries to bargain and to negotiate with the workers. And in turn, we will also be forcing them to get Wal-Mart to the table.” He added that changing the “totality of circumstances” will require negotiating with the U.S. and Mexican governments as well.

Rather than just bargaining with the person who signs their paycheck, says Soni, workers “want to bargain with the actual beneficiary of their labor, which is often Wal-Mart.” They’re making progress. At Wal-Mart’s request, Uvalle, Diaz, and NGA staff met face-to-face with the retail giant in February. In the meeting, “Wal-Mart presented a project of trying to educate suppliers,” said Uvalle, “but it’s not enough.” Soni said that while the meeting was “very powerful,” it also showed the “enormous gulf of understanding” between Wal-Mart and the workers. At one point, Soni recalled, a Wal-Mart official touted a proposed app that would allow workers to report human trafficking from their smart phones. According to Soni, Diaz “responded that it sounds great, but frankly she wasn’t even getting a cell phone signal in that labor camp she was trapped in.”

What will come of that meeting remains to be seen. In recent years, Wal-Mart has proven itself more willing to spend money in order to mollify critics than to concede power. If a concession “doesn’t create a permanent oppositional structure within the company,” said Lichtenstein, “they’ll entertain the idea of accommodating it.”

At a daunting moment for U.S. labor, NGA organizers say that the organizing victories of “deportable” workers—partial though they may be—offer hope, and a challenge to complacency. But there’s a difficult road ahead.

Addressing the deportation threat is the first and most critical step in increasing guest workers’ leverage. “What scares us the most is the black list,” said Diaz. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects.”

“We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics,” said Uvalle. “They say, ‘I brought you here. You depend on my visa. I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” If workers knew that their job was secure from one year to the next, or that they could leave an abusive U.S. employer for a better one, said Diaz, that would make a tremendous difference.

Eliminating the black list would rob employers of one of their most powerful weapons for ensuring workers’ compliance. But accomplishing such a change will require significant leverage. Given the high costs of transporting workers across the border and securing visas—costs often borne in part by employers—Horwitz argues that companies are paying a heavy premium in order to secure a work force that can be compelled to work for illegally long hours and low wages.

Organizers say they’ve found strategies that are working. One is worker-to-worker organizing. After receiving rare “U visas” from the U.S. government as victims of serious crimes at CJ’s, Diaz, Uvalle, and their co-worker Victor Manuel Ramos spent several months as full-time organizers with the NGA, visiting guest workers at work and at their (often employer-owned) homes. The CJ’s activists say the workers they spoke with were often shocked—less by the conditions they endured at CJ’s than by the way they fought back.

NGA has also concluded that guest worker organizing won’t succeed if it remains bound within the United States. Given the shortness of the season and the obstacles to organizing, said Diaz, it would make a huge difference if workers arrived in the United States already prepared to assert their rights. That’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Many guest workers often come from the same towns in their home countries, where they’ve been recruited by the same company agents, and return to the same job each year. But the presence of recruiters in the community means that many workers back in Mexico, though separated by a border from the workplace, still contend with fear of surveillance by management. Workers say they hold their meetings in secret to avoid blacklisting of the participants.

NGA has teamed up with ProDESC, the Mexico-based human rights organization. ProDESC organizer Valeria Scorza says Mexican workers’ migration isn’t an accident—rather, it’s a predictable consequence of the migration of capital that was hastened by NAFTA. Lichtenstein says the trade pact “helped further destroy the peasant economy of Mexico in a rapid fashion.” As U.S. agricultural products “flooded the Mexican market,” he added, workers “rushed to migrate.”

But while employers traverse borders with relative ease, workers’ movements are heavily regulated (their wages are a different story). “If companies can erase borders,” says Soni, “then workers should be able to as well. And that’s exactly what they’re setting out to do.”

As Horwitz and I drove between guest workers’ homes in Louisiana, he told me that roughly 90 percent of the workers he meets are too scared to have anything to do with NGA. Employers’ leverage, and the short work seasons, mean that victories are often partial or ambiguous. Outside New Orleans, we met Laura Sanchez (not her real name), a guest worker at Viet Foods. She lives in a small room in a small building adjacent to the plant. There’s barbed wire over the fence. By the time I visited in November, the season was winding down, and most of the workers had left. The 2012 season was Sanchez’s first as a guest worker, and it had been a “horrible disappointment.” As soon as she arrived, she had to borrow money from her new boss for basic necessities for the building where she shared a room with three other workers. The work, shelling crawfish at a fast pace, made her fingers bleed. Sanchez said her boss “would say we were lazy and we were slow.” If he saw that one of the women had gotten a ride to work, he would accuse her of sleeping around.

Overtime hours were unpaid. But most weeks, her biggest complaint was that the hours were scant. When workers asked about getting hours at another job, the boss threatened to report them to immigration. When we met, Sanchez was preparing to return to Mexico, where she’ll work for several months selling tamales. She showed me her most recent paycheck. After some (though not all) of her expenses had been deducted, she had made $5,282 in nine months. But she owed her boss more than $3,000, leaving less than $2,000 for eight months of work. “I’m barely making enough to pay for my ticket back,” she said. Still, given the limited opportunities in Mexico, she’ll be back this year.

The 2012 season had almost ended before the workers agreed to call the NGA. “Everyone would say yes we should, but then when the moment came, no one would.” When Diaz and Uvalle came to meet the Viet Foods workers, said Sanchez, “they explained to us how they’d gone through the same thing. We started to feel encouraged. . . .We really admired them. We thought if they can do it, so can we.” After some meetings, Sanchez and a few of her co-workers confronted management about grievances. She said the response was mixed: her boss quietly remedied a few, and others remained the same. The day after the confrontation, said Sanchez, “It filled my heart up to see that my boss was nervous.” But although NGA says the conditions remained bad, the workers weren’t ready to take the fight any further.

Still, Sanchez says she’ll be more ready to organize when she comes back to the United States next year, though she hopes she’ll be working somewhere else. “I don’t have fear anymore,” she told me. “I only fear God.”

The next evening, Horwitz and I met with three workers from Crabs LLC, another company where the CJ’s strikers have been trying to light a spark. Workers first got in touch with NGA in 2011 about alleged wage theft and verbal abuse. Some workers walked off the job that year when their demands weren’t met, but didn’t get the traction of the CJ’s strikers, and the season ended without a resolution. In the 2012 season, workers say they were further galvanized when Crabs’ CEO Dennis Landry tricked them into signing a notarized contract, in English, agreeing to bear financial responsibility for any accidents at the plant.

Workers have repeatedly gone as a group to confront management and say they’ve won a measure of respect. In November, they filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor seeking payment of back wages. They hope that will bear fruit by 2013. “I still feel nervous,” one of the workers, Maria de Jésus Rubio, told me. “But not as much as before.”

At Crabs LLC, as at Viet, progress is slow. Rubio told me she confronted Landry about the unsanitary conditions in the trailers where they live. “I said you need to fix the trailers, or stop charging us rent.” His response, she said, was, “it will be too expensive” to fix it all, but “I’ll cover up the holes where the rats come in.”

Landry declined my request to meet. But he made his case over the phone, after asking me whether I was a federal agent. He denied having broken any laws, then lit into the government for what he called suffocating regulations that made it impossible to run a profitable business. Landry also blamed government largesse for his need to hire guest workers in the first place, saying that overly generous welfare benefits have sapped American citizens’ willingness to do hard work: “Americans are getting to the point where, ‘Why work when I can get it from the government for free?’” Landry also suggested I check to find out whether NGA was operating without a license. He said he’s looking to sell the Crabs LLC business and doesn’t plan to operate it in 2013.

Horwitz said he was skeptical that Landry was actually shutting down. But he noted that sometimes the closest NGA gets to victory is to see a scofflaw employer driven out of business, sending a message to peers and strengthening the case for systemic change in the industry. Asked later how other workers respond when NGA campaigns end with an employer being shut down, Horwitz e-mailed that “when workers take action to expose and transform conditions in a workplace, they don’t do it lightly.” While NGA members first try to negotiate with their bosses, said Horwitz, “far too often employers respond with actions that are criminal, and the government can shut them down as a result.”

While fighting for de facto collective bargaining with companies like Wal-Mart, NGA is building leverage to negotiate with the governments in Mexico and the United States. With negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform underway at press time, guest labor is now on the agenda. However, it’s too soon to tell if that will spell good news for guest workers.

NGA staff predicted last fall that Republicans would demand an expanded guest worker program as a condition for support of any bipartisan immigration deal, and that some Democrats would accede. The Republican Party of Texas recently added support for an expanded guest worker program to its platform, a move that became the centerpiece of a Politico article touting the state party as a model for how Republicans can win over Latino voters and shed their anti-immigrant image. If the number of guest worker visas grows, and their lack of labor protections remains, says Uvalle, “the problems are going to continue forward. But also, if that happens, the fight will continue forward.”

Senate negotiators reportedly charged organized labor and big business with formulating a compromise on guest labor for inclusion in a comprehensive bill. In a February 21 statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue announced that they had reached “common ground in several important areas.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the outline agreed to by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber included a new visa system, some form of protection for guest workers, and a new federal bureau that would advise Congress on how many guest workers to allow at a time. Trumka and Donahue wrote that labor and business had reached “the middle—not the end—of this process.”

When it comes to protecting guest workers’ rights as part of immigration reform, “I think labor is more united than it’s ever been,” Rutgers professor Janice Fine said in February. In contrast, said Fine, during the failed effort to pass immigration reform in 2007, major unions were divided over whether it was worth making the “devil’s bargain” of expanding abusive guest worker programs in order to win citizenship for undocumented workers. But Fine warned that it was too soon to tell, even if a deal was reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber, whether major businesses and business-backed Republicans would support it.

Uvalle and other guest workers traveled to Washington in February to push legislators to include labor protections in any deal. “I want them to understand what guest workers really face,” said Uvalle, “so they do their part to make it better.” Soni described the support for guest worker protections expressed by key Democrats as “a source of optimism.” However, he said, “if the Chamber of Commerce is anywhere as removed from a knowledge of the lived experience of workers, and the need for labor protections, as these Wal-Mart executives…I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Speaking to a labor audience in February, U.S. Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith called guest worker labor rights “the most important part of immigration reform.” Smith expressed confidence that a path to citizenship for other undocumented workers “is going to happen,” and it will spur a new wave of activism by immigrant workers. When that happens, said Smith, “all of this organizing and rising up is going to be very threatening to employers. What are they going to do? If they could, they would turn to guest workers.”

If Democrats back legislation that facilitates guest worker abuse, it won’t be the first time. Last year, following the strikes at Hershey’s and CJ’s, the federal Department of Labor announced new H2B visa regulations, backed by NGA. But industries moved quickly to defund the rules, backing budget amendments that would bar any spending for their implementation. The amendments passed not just the Republican-controlled House, but the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the industry won the support of Maryland’s prominent liberal senator Barbara Mikulski as well as usual suspects like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. Sometimes, Horwitz told me, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

NGA’s Soni is seeking an entirely different conversation, one he recognizes may be years away. Anyone who comes to the United States to work, he says, should have a way to remain in the country after leaving an abusive employer. Rather than being “captive labor,” said Soni, “they should be able to come with legal status, a path to citizenship, and to voting in the country that they’re working in.” Before that happens, NGA has a lot of work to do.

McDonald’s Must Pay! Campaign Overview (en español)

Student guestworkers demand McDonald’s take responsibility for labor abuse

On March 6, 2013, J-1 student guestworkers from around the world went on strike to expose severe exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants in Central PA. They joined U.S. workers and labor leaders in demanding that the fast food giant take responsibility for labor abuse at its restaurants—and their fight reached the pages of The Nation, NBC News, and the Wall Street Journal.

The student guestworkers, from Argentina, Peru, Chile, Malaysia, and other countries, paid $3,000-4,000 apiece to participate in the U.S. State Department’s J-1 student guestworker program, expecting decent work and a cultural exchange. Instead, McDonald’s used them as a sub-minimum wage exploitable workforce. Students faced:

  • As few as four hours of work a week at $7.25 an hour, with exorbitant housing deductions that brought their net pay far below minimum wage
  • Shifts as long as 25 hours with no overtime pay
  • Being packed into employer-owned basement housing, up to eight students to a room, for $300 each per month
  • Threats to cut hours further and surprise home visits from the employer, McDonald’s franchisee Andy Cheung, and labor supplier GeoVisions to suppress complaints

When Andy Cheung and GeoVisions responded to students’ concerns with threats, the students started to organize, meeting in the middle of the night to decide how to expose the abuse. They contacted the National Guestworker Alliance, filed official complaints with the State Department and Department of Labor, and held a work stoppage on March 6, saying: “McDonald’s Must Pay!”

McDonald’s refused to meet with the students about ending labor abuse—even when they delivered 100,000 petitions to the CEO’s doorstep.

The students supersized their campaign with a global day of action held on June 6, 2013. They and their allies worldwide demanded that McDonald’s end labor abuse and support freedom of association for all its workers worldwide.

On February 18, 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor vindicated the students’ fight, citing the McDonald’s franchisee for minimum wage violations against a total of 291 workers — both guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them — awarding them $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages.


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 fight of these student guestworkers shows McDonald’s abject failure to set even the most basic labor standards for any of its workers. 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. Instead, McDonald’s hides behind franchisees like Andy Cheung, saying it takes no responsibility for employment decisions at individual restaurants. That needs to change.

It also shows the ongoing failure of the U.S. State Department to adequately police the J-1 student guestworker program and enforce its own rules. The J-1 student guestworker program has been rife with severe labor abuse and sub-minimum wage pay by employers—as in the case of the hundreds of J-1 student workers who joined the NGA and exposed captive labor at a Hershey’s Chocolate plant in Pennsylvania in August 2011.

Guestworkers and Immigration Reform

This latest exposé of severe labor abuse against guestworkers comes as Congress is considering a massive expansion of guestworker programs as part of national immigration reform.

The exploitation of student guestworkers at McDonald’s—like labor trafficking of guestworkers at Grand Isle Shipyard and Signal International in the Gulf Coast, abuse of student guestworkers at Hershey’s, and captive labor of guestworkers at Wal-Mart supplier CJ’s Seafood—demonstrates how vulnerable guestworkers are to employer abuse.

When guestworkers try to blow the whistle on employer abuse, employers use threats of retaliation and deportation to silence them. When they do, all workers lose: guestworkers become trapped in exploitation, and the wages and conditions of U.S. workers suffer because of a race to the bottom with immigrant workers.

Any future guestworker program has to protect workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights. That includes POWER Act protections for immigrant workers who are involved in civil or labor rights disputes: legal status and work authorization independent of their employer.


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¡McDonald’s Debe Pagar! Resumen de la Campaña  

Trabajadores temporales exigen que McDonald’s toma responsabilidad para los abuso laborales

El 6 de marzo estudiantes con visa temporal, J-1 conocido en los EEUU como “trabajadores huéspedes” lanzaron una huelga para exponer la explotación severa en los restaurantes de McDonald’s en Pensilvania Central donde ellos trabajaron. Se unieron con trabajadores locales y lideres de sindicatos para exigir que la compañía de comida rápida toma responsabilidad para los abusos labores en sus restaurantes. Su lucha llegó hasta las paginas de los medios de comunicación destacados en los EEUU de NBC News, The Nation y el Wall Street Journal.

Los trabajadores huéspedes fueron reclutado de Argentina, Perú, Chile, Malaysia y otros países. Pagaron $3,000-4,000 dólares estadounidenses cada uno esperando trabajos dignos y un intercambio cultural a través del programa de visa J-1 administrado por el Departamento de Estado de los EEUU. En lugar de un intercambio McDonald’s les utilizó como trabajadores explotables y les pago menos que el salario mínimo. Los trabajadores estudiantiles enfrentaron:

  • Amenazas de deportación por parte de los gerentes de la franquicia de McDonald’s
  • Descuentos excesivos de los cheques para su alojamiento lo cual le bajo su sueldo a mucho menos que el salario mínimo legal
  • Turnos de trabajo de hasta 25 horas enseguida sin pago de tiempo extra
  • Viviendas controlado por la compañía con hasta ocho personas compartiendo un sótano por $300 cada uno por mes
  • Represalias  por parte de la franquicia de McDonald’s y su proveedor de labor GeoVisions, incluyendo visitas a los estudiantes en sus viviendas y el recortes de horas laborales para intimidar los trabajadores


Cuando el dueño de la franquicia de McDonald’s, Andy Cheung y GeoVisions respondieron a los reclamos de los estudiantes con amenazas los trabajadores empezaron a organizarse. Se reunieron de noche para decidir como exponer los abusos. Unieron como miembros a la Alianza Nacional de Trabajadores Huéspedes (“NGA” por sus siglas en ingles), reportaron los abusos al ministerio de trabajo y el ministerio de estado en quejas oficiales y lanzaron una huelga el día 6 de marzo diciendo con una voz fuerte: ¡McDonald’s debe pagar!


Para el Día de Acción Global, los trabajadores huéspedes de McDonald’s y su aliados en mas que 20 países exigirán que McDonald’s concorde a:

  1. Poner un fin a la explotación y represalias de los trabajadores internacionales reclutados a trabajar en sus restaurantes estadounidenses; y
  2. Garantizar libre asociación y el derecho a organizarse sin miedo de represalias por todos los trabajadores en todos los restaurantes de McDonald’s en todo el mundo


La lucha de los trabajadores huéspedes estudiantiles muestra el fracaso total de McDonald’s en establecer aun los mas básicos estándares laborales para sus trabajadores globalmente. McDonald’s instituya estándares para los dueños de sus franquicias sobre aspectos triviales de la presentación de su comida—mientras no tiene ninguna reglamento para proteger sus empleados los cuales le genera un beneficio de $27.6 billón en ingresos anuales para la corporación. En vez de proteger los trabajadores McDonald’s esconda detrás de sus franquicias declarando que no toma responsabilidad de los restaurantes individuales. Eso tiene que cambiar!

Trabajadores Huéspedes en la reforma migratoria

Los trabajadores expusieron los abusos severas en el programa de trabajadores huéspedes justo en el momento en que el congreso de los EEUU esta considerando una masiva expansión de los programas de trabajadores temporales como parte de la reforma migratoria

La explotación de los trabajadores huéspedes estudiantiles en McDonald’s—como el trafico humano de trabajadores huéspedes en los astilleros americanos Grand Isle Shipyard y Signal International, los abusos de los trabajadores huéspedes estudiantiles en Hershey’s Chocolate y los trabadores huéspedes cautivas en la cadena de suministro de Wal-Mart—demuestra la vulnerabilidad de los trabajadores huéspedes al abuso por parte de las corporaciones.

Cuando trabajadores huéspedes intentan organizarse y reportar los abusos laborees, los patrones usan las amenazas, represalias y hasta deportaciones privados para callarlos. Bajo este sistema todos los trabajadores sufren. Los trabajadores temporales se convierte en trabajadores cautivos y explotados y los patrones se los utilizan para bajar los sueldos y las condiciones laborales para los demás trabajadores. Todos sufren en esta competencia manufacturado.

Cualquier programa de trabajadores temporales tiene que proteger los trabajadores de represalias y garantizarles el derecho a organizarse y negociar colectivamente. Eso incluya  las protecciones del Acta de PODER para los trabajadores inmigrantes que participan en disputas laborales.


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Guest Worker Visa Troubles Visit McDonald’s

The Wall Street Journal

Miriam Jordan, Kris Maher, and Julie Jargon
March 8, 2013

For Argentine college student Jorge Rios, a U.S. government cultural-exchange program had huge appeal: He would earn money and use it to explore the country. But after spending $3,000 to participate, Mr. Rios said he found himself at the mercy of a McDonald’s Corp. franchisee who was his employer and landlord.

This week, he and 14 other foreign students demonstrated outside a McDonald’s after filing complaints with the State Department and Labor Department saying they were exploited at fast-food outlets in the Harrisburg, Penn., area and housed in substandard conditions. The students were on a three-month J-1 visa for work and travel.

Reached on his cellphone on Thursday, Andy Cheung, the owner of the Harrisburg McDonald’s locations, said he was too busy to comment. A McDonald’s spokeswoman said the Oak Brook, Ill., chain is looking into the claims and, on behalf of Mr. Cheung, added, “The well-being of my employees is a top priority. The employees that are working in my restaurants as part of a guest worker program are no exception.”

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