Posts Tagged ‘captive labor’

Exploitation Isn’t ‘Cultural Exchange’ – Op-Ed by NGA’s Jennifer Rosenbaum

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.

 http://www.rollcall.com/news/exploitation_isnt_cultural_exchange_commentary-226475-1.html?pg=2

Will immigration reform protect workers? – Reuters Op-Ed by Josh Eidelson

Will immigration reform protect workers?
Reuters

Josh Eidelson
July 17th, 2013

As House Republicans mull maiming the Senate’s immigration bill, a thousand pundits are asking what their moves will mean for future elections. Meanwhile, far from the spotlight, some courageous immigrant workers are asking whether Congress will finally disarm employers who use immigration status to silence employees. If Congress punts on immigration reform, or merely passes an industry wish list, it will have doubled-down on complicity in a little-discussed trend that’s driving down working conditions for U.S.-born and immigrant workers alike: For too many employers, immigration law is a tool to punish workers who try to organize.

The workers watching Congress include Ana Rosa Diaz, who last year was among the Mexican H-2B visa guest workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, peeling crawfish sold by Walmart. Accounts from workers and an NGO assessment suggest the CJ’s workers had ample grievances, from the manager that threatened them with a shovel, to the worms and lizards in the moldy trailers where they slept, to the swamp fungus that left sticky blisters on their fingers as they raced through shifts that could last twenty hours.

To maintain that miserable status quo, workers allege, management regularly resorted to threats. The most dramatic came in May 2012, when they say CJ’s boss Mike LeBlanc showed up at the start of their 2 a.m. shift to tell them he knew they were plotting against him, and that he knew “bad men” back in Mexico, and to remind them that — through labor recruiters there — he knew where their families lived. Then LeBlanc ticked off some names, including Diaz’s daughter. Diaz told me the threat of violence was all too clear: “I’ve never been so afraid of anybody in my life.”

Long before that speech, CJ’s workers say their managers deployed an all-too-common threat, what they call the “black list”: not just being deported back to Mexico, but being prevented by recruiters there from ever working in the United States again. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects,” Diaz told me in a 2012 interview. “We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics…” said her co-worker Martha Uvalle. “‘I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” (CJ’s Seafood did not respond to various reporters’ requests for comment last year, including mine. Efforts to reach the company for comment last week were unsuccessful.)

Guest workers aren’t the only immigrants whose bosses can wield their immigration status as a weapon. Too often, employers who’ve happily gotten rich off the labor of undocumented workers develop a sudden interest in those employees’ legal status once they start speaking up. A few days after three-year subcontracted food court employee Antonio Vanegas joined a strike in the government-owned Ronald Reagan Building, he was detained by Homeland Security and placed in a four-day immigration detention. The same day that workers at Milwaukee’s Palermo’s Pizza plant presented their boss with a union petition, management presented workers with letters stating they’d need to verify their legal status. Ten days later, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers, arguing it was just following immigration law.

For every immigrant worker that risks retaliation, there are others that choose not to, chastened by a well-founded fear that their status will be used against them. (There’s a risk of retaliationanytime U.S. workers try to exercise workplace rights, but the threat for undocumented or guest workers is particularly acute.) That vulnerability holds back the efforts of unions and other labor groups to organize and transform low-wage industries — or even to ensure employers pay minimum wage to their workers, immigrant or otherwise. It helps explain why the center of gravity in organized labor — long the site of struggles between exclusion and equality — has swung decisively in recent decades to support immigration reform. Rather than pushing to deport immigrants, unions (including my former employer) are mostly trying to organize them. The less leverage employers have over immigrants’ legal status, the more leverage immigrant and U.S.-born workers will have to wrest dollars and dignity from their bosses together.

The Senate’s immigration bill takes a few key steps to make that easier, each of which activists expect will face strong opposition in the House. The bill features a path to citizenship that organizers expect will help disarm deportation-happy bosses by allowing millions of workers to obtain secure and equal legal status. It creates a new “W visa” program with more labor protections that advocates hope will become a template to someday replace existing guest worker programs like the H-2B. And the bill includes several anti-retaliation measures designed to stem abuse: from more chances for workers who exposed crimes to get special visas or stays of deportation, to language overturning a Supreme Court decision that prevented illegally fired undocumented workers from getting back pay.

Those pro-labor provisions already come with painful sacrifices. Even before the Senate pegged it to a militarized “border surge,” that path to citizenship was long and littered with obstacles. Those include a requirement of near-continuous employment that advocates warn could still leave immigrants especially vulnerable to retaliatory firings, and an exclusion based on criminal convictions that — combined with a mandate that employers use the controversial status-checking software e-Verify — could leave some workers more vulnerable than ever. And advocates note that the H-2B program could at least temporarily more than double in size during the bill, though it would be subject to some modest new protections.

Facing a hostile House, labor officials are framing those Senate compromises as a floor for labor language in immigration reform: “There can be no further erosion of rights, and we’re protecting that as it goes to the House,” says Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Immigration and Community Action. But the Senate provisions are more likely to be treated as a ceiling. “We’ll lose all of the worker protection stuff in the House,” said a different advocate working on immigration for a union, and then “hope that reason prevails in the conference” committee tasked with reconciling Senate and House legislation.

The CJ’s Seafood story has an unusual ending: After their boss’s implied threat to their families, Diaz and seven of her co-workers mounted an against-the-odds strike. “We felt,” Diaz told me, “that if we didn’t do something to stop this, sometime in the future, it would be our children going through it.” You won’t find much such courage in Congress.

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/07/17/will-immigration-reform-protect-workers/

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers – CNN Op-Ed by Saket Soni

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers
CNN

Saket Soni
June 25, 2013

Last week, federal immigration authorities seized more than a dozen 7-Eleven stores in New York and Virginia. Authorities charged that the stores’ franchisees “brutally exploited” more than 50 undocumented immigrant workers. The workers allegedly worked up to 100 hours a week, for as little as $3 an hour. They were forced to live in housing the employers owned and controlled, authorities said.

For many, it was a shock. An iconic American corporation was allegedly profiting from what the U.S. attorney’s office called a “modern-day plantation system.” Prosecutors are seeking $30 million in forfeiture, not only from the franchisees but also from the 7-Eleven parent corporation.

The real shock should be how common cases such as this have become.

Millions of immigrant workers are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, because employers can threaten them with retaliatory firing and deportation to silence complaints. In this context, the allegations that 7-Eleven ran a “plantation system” for 13 years sounds more plausible.

Consider: In March, workers from several nations filed federal complaints describing similar exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants in central Pennsylvania. The workers, students who had come to the United States with J-1 visas to work under the Summer Work Travel Program, reported brutal conditions, wage theft and shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay. They said they were made to live in substandard housing owned by the employer, and faced threats of deportation when they raised concerns.

In June 2012, another group of immigrant workers alleged forced labor at a Louisiana Walmart supplier called C.J.’s Seafood. Supervisors threatened to beat them with a shovel, they said, to make them work faster, and when they spoke up, the boss allegedly threatened violence against their families.

Recent debate on the Senate floor also recalled an emblematic 2011 case of exploitation at a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Pennsylvania. There, immigrant guest workers said in a federal complaint that they earned subminimum wage take-home pay and faced constant threats of firing and deportation.

Among the many similarities in these cases, most striking is that all four came to light because immigrant workers defied threats and blew the whistle. When they did, they stood up not just for themselves, but for U.S. workers as well.

In a recent national survey of 1,000 registered voters by CAMBIO (a coalition of pro-reform groups of which the National Guestworker Alliance is a member), 75% 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 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 toward citizenship.”

Right now, protections for immigrant whistle-blowers are weak. Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely ignores a memorandum from its director, John Morton, allowing it not to pursue deportation against whistle-blowers. In New Orleans, 26 workers who helped expose exploitation in the Louisiana home elevation industry were arrested in an immigration raid in August 2011, and most are still fighting their deportations today. Across the country, workers who have been the victims of exploitation — and have come forward to stop it — are treated as disposable.

Immigration reform needs to change that. First, as the bill moves through the Senate and on to the House of Representatives, it needs to include provisions that deliver dignity at work to the more than 7 million immigrant workers in the United States — and that keep the floor from falling for the 150 million U.S.-born workers who work alongside them. A bill called the POWER Act would provide the key protections to both. It needs to be included in the immigration reform bill.

Second, immigration reform must deliver equal rights to all immigrant workers, so that unscrupulous employers can’t pick and choose the most exploitable workers to undercut the competition. All immigrant workers who come to the United States through future guest-worker programs must have strong whistle-blower protections and the right to change employers as freely as any worker on American shores.

Raising the floor for the immigrant workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy means building a stronger, more secure economy for all workers. That’s why protecting immigrant workers doesn’t just matter for immigrants. It matters for every worker in America.

 http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/opinion/soni-immigration-7-eleven/index.html

Martha Uvalle Guel: Blowing the Whistle on Labor Abuse – 5/28/13

When guestworkers like Martha Uvalle blow the whistle on abuse, they protect the wages and conditions of the 24 million U.S. workers alongside them. Tell Congress that immigration reform should protect guestworker whistleblowers — for the sake of ALL America’s workers!

 

Proposed visa could tie more foreigners to abusive employers – WBEZ – 5/9/13

Proposed visa could tie more foreigners to abusive employers
WBEZ

Chip Mitchell
May 9, 2013

Supporters of a proposed visa for low-skilled, nonseasonal laborers say it would break the mold for U.S. guest-worker programs. They point out that the visa, part of a sweeping immigration bill that a Senate committee took up Thursday, would allow foreigners to switch employers and would provide a path to citizenship.

But a WBEZ examination of the legislation suggests that the W Visa could, in practice, tether the foreigners to potentially abusive bosses and would not provide any guarantee of a future in the country.

The program, developed in talks between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, would set up a legal mechanism for bringing in as many as 200,000 foreigners a year to worksites that could range from meatpacking plants to nursing homes. Business groups behind the plan say it would help provide a “future flow” of legal workers into positions that Americans don’t want.

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, agreed to help formulate the W Visa as part of the proposed immigration overhaul, which would provide legal status to millions of low-skilled workers who lack authorization to be in the country. The federation negotiated despite viewing guest-worker programs as a drag on wages.

For W Visa holders, the AFL-CIO managed to insert safeguards. The foreigners would have whistleblower protections and the employers would be subject to all labor laws. Theoretically the workers would get overtime pay, safety gear, lunch breaks and so on.

The practical question is whether the W Visa holders would have the freedom to speak up for such rights.

Saket Soni, executive director of the New Orleans-based National Guestworker Alliance, points out that existing guest-worker programs tie the foreigners to their employer. “If they complain about working conditions or organize, there is a readymade retaliation button,” Soni said. “Employers can simply terminate a worker and deport their problem because, once they’re fired, those workers are deportable.”

The groups behind the W Visa say the program would be different. They point to a “portability” provision that would allow the foreigners to switch employers. “Portability is, really, the foundation of all labor rights,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of a pro-business group called ImmigrationWorks USA. “If you want to ask for better wages or better conditions or better anything, your leverage comes from being able to say, ‘I’m leaving.’ ”

But there’s some fine print. The Senate bill, as it stands, would require unemployed W Visa holders to find a job within 60 days. And they could not apply just anywhere. They would have to work for another employer registered in the program.

The search for such an employer could be daunting. Few of the workers would speak English well and know their way around. “Sixty days to find a job these days is pretty challenging,” Soni said, even for workers born and raised in the United States.

For portability to be most meaningful, lawmakers would have to provide jobless W Visa holders protections against blacklisting, and would have to provide the registered employers incentives to hire unemployed W Visa holders instead of bringing in new foreigners for openings, Soni said. Jobless W Visa holders could also benefit from coordination and support programs.

Such proposals have not emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel working on the immigration bill.

Another selling point for the W Visa program is that these foreigners, unlike most guest workers, could eventually become citizens.

“These workers have the possibility, at least, of getting a green card in the future,” said Robert Sakaniwa, an associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “In the past, when there was no hope for the immigrant to get a green card and stay in legal permanent status in the U.S., the opportunities for misuse and abuse abounded.”

But pursuing a green card could be dangerous for W Visa holders. The bill specifies only one path for them — a petition by the registered employer. That would deepen their dependence on potentially abusive bosses.

A W Visa holder could also self-petition for a green card, but that would mean competing with other foreigners in a new merit-based visa system created to give a leg up to highly skilled applicants. A “tier” of that system for low-skilled workers would award points for each year of lawful U.S. employment, but the size of the applicant pool could be huge. Holding a W Visa itself would provide no advantage.

http://www.wbez.org/news/proposed-visa-could-tie-more-foreigners-abusive-employers-107114


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