Posts Tagged ‘visa’

PHOTOS: Guest workers protest job conditions – The News Herald – 9/4/2013

Guest workers protest job conditions
The News Herald

Randal Yakey
September 4, 2013

(Click the image for a full gallery of photos from the event)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Guest workers from Jamaica said they were harassed, shortchanged and threatened with deportation if they failed to show up for work, where they were contract employees of Mister Clean Laundry and Cleaning Service.

National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) lead organizer Jacob Horwitz said the workers were recruited by Reynaldo Villanueva, owner and operator of Destin-based Mister Clean Cleaning Services.

Horwitz said Villanueva recruited the workers from Jamaica and threatened them with deportation if they did not do what they were told without complaint.

“These are workers who were charged and spent over $2,000 in recruitment fees and costs for H-2B visas and were put up in company housing and slept on the floor,” Horwitz said.

H-2B is a guest worker visa.

“Some were getting paychecks as small as zero dollars because of deductions from their paychecks,” Horwitz said. “When the workers protested, the answer was a threat stapled to their paychecks.”

They said the most recent flyer stapled to their paychecks said that any worker who didn’t show up for work would be removed from “Mister Clean Housing” and “You will be escorted to pick up your plane ticket to go back to Jamaica. You will have an ICE or Okaloosa County Sheriff Department escort.”

ICE refers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The NGA has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the case.

Villanueva refused to speak at length on the issue, asking inquiries be sent to him in writing. “These are false allegations,” he said Wednesday in a brief phone interview.

Deneise Gardener, of Montego Bay, Jamaica, said she was forced to live in squalor in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people in Panama City — sometimes without utilities.

“When I came here, we were sleeping on the floor, no utilities, and when we asked about our pay, he (Villanueva) said he was going to get ICE to throw us out of the country,” Gardener said.

The NGA has charged the number of workers per apartment has gone as high as 10 and 15 people.

Gardener said she came to Florida to save enough money to help her family back in Jamaica.

“I was working as a housekeeper here at Edgewater” Beach and Golf Resort, Gardener said. “Sometimes we would get no pay at all for weeks.”

Paul Wohlford, vice president of the Resort Collection, which includes Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort, issued a statement Wednesday saying the resorts provide “ethical, quality working environment and strives to make sure employees are treated fairly.”

“We do not condone unfair labor practices of any kind and we had zero knowledge of how these employees were treated; they were contracted through Mr. Clean, a contract labor company based in Destin, Fl.”

The statement added that if the allegations are true, The Resort Collection will stop doing business with Mr. Clean.

According to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the guest workers were required to pay between $1,800 and $2,500 each in mandatory pre-employment expenses. NGA’s lawyer contended the practice is illegal.

The Jamaican workers were supposed to be paid between $8.50 and $9 an hour. Most of them did not get anywhere close to that, Horwitz said.

Villanueva deducted from the employees’ paychecks transportation costs, visa expenses, uniforms, criminal background checks, medical checks, housing administration fees, first and last month’s rent and workers’ compensation insurance, according to the Labor Department complaint.

“They were indentured servants,” Horwitz said. “They deducted everything from their paychecks.”

The guest worker program only allows for the worker to work for one employer. If they did not stay with the current employer, they would have to be removed for the country, Horwitz said.

“They were trapped,” Horwitz said.

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.

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

Protect rights of immigrant whistle-blowers

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.

Labor abuse complaints lodged by midstate foreign student workers help spur federal legislation – PennLive – 6/10/13

Labor abuse complaints lodged by midstate foreign student workers help spur federal legislation

Eric Veronikis
June 10, 2013

Labor abuse complaints lodged by foreign students who worked for two central Pennsylvania employers during the past two years helped produce legislation pending in the U.S. Senate, which advocates said would “go a long way” toward preventing similar situations in the future.

International students who worked for a third-party vendor at a Hershey Co. packing plant in Palmyra, and students employed by a Middletown-based McDonald’s franchisee, held a series of work-stoppage protests in August 2011 and March of this year.

The students said they paid exorbitant fees to participate in a cultural work exchange program through the U.S. Department of State’s Summer Work Travel Program, which provided little cultural enrichment and ample amounts of backbreaking work for little pay.

The latest controversy involved students working at some midstate McDonald’s franchises who were being housed in properties owned by the restaurants’ proprietor, Andy Cheung.

Following a protest organized March 6 with help from the National Guestworker Alliance at Cheung’s golden arches on Trindle Road in Hampden Township, international students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of State.

They said Cheung forced them to work double and triple shifts without overtime, while stuffing up to eight at a time in the basements of his houses, where they lived as he deducted rent from their minimum wage paychecks.

To promote the passage of Senate Bill 744, which would establish safeguards and severe penalties against recruiters and employers who take advantage of foreign workers, students formerly employed at the Hershey’s site and at Cheung’s restaurants, and anti-labor abuse advocates spoke about the need for program reform during a Monday morning teleconference with reporters.

“Some of the students were really afraid, and didn’t want to be part of (the protests),” said Decibal Bilan, a Romanian student who worked at Hershey’s Palmyra packing plant. “Now, after all this, I hope this should change, and new law should offer support.”

S. 744 has received bi-partisan support, and the Senate is expected to adopt the measure before it adjourns for its July 4 recess.

The legislation, which was crafted by four Republicans and four Democrats who have been dubbed the “Gang of Eight,” was taken up by the Senate, on Monday. It’s considered an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

The U.S. House is expected to take up its own immigration legislation in August, and hearings could produce a law that would instill more protection for students in the U.S. Department of State program by the fall.
S. 744 also speaks to the human trafficking epidemic that exists in the United States, and would include protections for migrant workers.

It would do the following to protect foreign student workers:

  • Create a registration requirement, which would force foreign worker recruiters to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to identify and register the employees they are recruiting;
  • Require a background check of recruiters to ensure they haven’t broken the law;
  • Require recruiters to post bond to cover the wages of workers they employ;
  • Require recruiters to identify employers, the work students will do and the wages and type of visas they will use;
  • Allow workers to bring complaints to DHS, with the ability to file civil charges.
  • Limit recruiter fees;
  • Bar recruiters who violate SB744 from the program for a period of time;
  • Protect workers against retaliation and deportation, both of which have been threatened by employers, as cases are investigated;
  • Carry fines of $10,000 per violation in civil lawsuits. Fines could be imposed per worker. Statutory penalties of up to $500,000 also could be imposed.

Much of the public controversy has centered on jobs in the hospitality industry, but similar situations have surfaced in the teaching and health care fields, according to experts who participated in Monday’s discussion.

A worker would have three years to file a complaint with DHS, under S. 744.

And if a decision has not been made within 180 days of filing a complaint, the worker could file a grievance against the employer with a federal District Court, said Sarah Rempel, policy attorney for Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc.

“We are all clear on what has been reported in media. These provisions should easily gain bipartisan support,” Rempel said of whether similar legislation will win approval in the House.

“What has been striking to our group is that regardless of sector, or visa category, there are common abuses” covered by S. 744.

Bruce Goldstein, president of advocacy organization, Farmworker Justice, said many employers prefer guest workers over American workers, who are not under the same economic pressures and put up with terrible working conditions for fear of losing their jobs and being deported.

Ingrid Cruz, a teacher from the Phillippines, paid more than $15,000 for an opportunity to become a robotics teacher in Louisiana.

She and other foreign teachers working in Louisiana paid recruiting agencies between $15,000 to $20,000 to teach in the U.S.

After taking on high-interest loans and even selling family dwellings at home, some foreign teachers were forced to sign one-sided contracts that favored the recruitment agencies, she said.

They also had to contend with high rent and visa violations created by the same agency, she said.

“I can still remember how difficult it was to sign a one-sided contract, with conditions only favorable to this agency,” Cruz said. “Considering we were left with nothing to go back to, we were left with no other choice at this time.”

The U.S. Department of Labor has confirmed that it is investigating the complaints filed by seven of the foreign student workers employed by Cheung.

And the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Summer Work Travel Program, is nearing the end of its investigation of GeoVisions, the New Hampshire-based host company that worked with Cheung to bring the students to the midstate, a bureau official said.

When asked to comment on the student allegations, Cheung, who is still operating his restaurants but is in the process of selling the six midstate locations at the request of McDonald’s Corp., said he has yet to receive any type of reprimand from authorities.

Should it be adopted, S. 744 has key protections that would allow workers to remain in the U.S. and participate in investigations as worker abuse complaints are investigated, Goldstein said.

“We believe this bill is a huge step forward,” he said.

Senate Bill Includes Key POWER Act Protections for Workers – 4/22/13

Whistleblower protections for immigrant workers also protect U.S. workers

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2013—The Senate immigration bill’s inclusion of POWER Act worker protections is a huge victory for immigrant and U.S. workers alike.

Too often, employers use threats of retaliation and deportation to silence immigrant whistleblowers and get away with abuse. Immigrant workers become trapped in captive labor, and U.S. workers are trapped in a race to the bottom as employers use guestworkers to drive down wages and conditions for all.

The Senate bill addresses this by providing crucial protections for whistleblowers so immigrant workers can expose abuse without fear of deportation. The bill also allows immigrant workers to demand back pay and reinstatement when they face retaliatory termination.

  • These protections are crucial for workers like Josue Diaz, who performed dangerous, toxic cleanup work after Hurricane Ike so Texans could return to their homes—then spent 78 days in jail when he protested stolen wages and his employer retaliated by having him arrested.
  • They’re crucial for workers like Delmy Palencia, a mother and member of the Congress of Day Laborers who faces deportation after immigration authorities retaliated against her for standing up against racial profiling and abuse of power by local law enforcement.
  • They’re crucial for workers like Mary and Pat, National Alliance of Domestic Workers members who worked around the clock, facing isolation, low wages, threats, and even physical violence.
  • They’re crucial for workers like Jorge Rios, a J-1 guestworker who faced severe exploitation at McDonald’s and threats of deportation when he spoke up.
  • Such protections are overdue for workers at Corinthian Contractors employed on a pipeline project for DC Water who organized to demand their legal mandated wage, only to have ICE used in retaliation against them, leaving over half of the workers fired and key worker-leaders in deportation proceedings.


Only strong workers can build a strong economy. We look forward to preserving and strengthening POWER Act worker protections as immigration reform moves forward.

ABOUT: The POWER Campaign seeks to ensure the basic civil and labor rights of immigrant workers who organize to end exploitation, and to ensure that U.S. workers’ wages and conditions are not undermined by employers who pit them against a captive workforce of exploited immigrant workers. The POWER Campaign includes Jobs with Justice, the National Guestworker Alliance, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the United Workers Congress, and the National Immigration Law Center.

CONTACT: Liz Cattaneo,, 202-822-2127 x104


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