Protecting Guest Workers in the United States

As the director of a project focused on the rights of migrant workers, I have been closely following the situation at the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, exchange students on J-1 visas faced threats and retaliation from their recruiting agency, the Council for Educational Travel (CETUSA) when they came forward to report exploitative conditions that violated federal worker protection laws and State Department regulations. The J-1 visa “summer work travel program,” of which these students were a part, is intended to provide foreign college students with cultural immersion and the opportunity to “live and work in the United States,” yet the students at the Hershey plant reported such restrictive work and living environments that there was no opportunity to do more than survive.

Neither the rain nor Hershey's will stop the march for justice.

Neither the rain nor Hershey’s will stop the march for justice.

In August, the students filed a complaint with the State Department that contained serious allegations of intimidation and retaliation by their agency, the Council for Educational Travel (CETUSA). Shortly after, a human rights delegation, comprised of professors and practitioners with expertise in labor and employment law, and international human rights, expressed serious concerns about students’ accounts of deception, coercion and threats from their recruiting agency. They called on the State Department to conduct an objective and expansive investigation of the sponsor. The New York Times reported on their plight in October, noting that “CETUSA failed to heed many distress signals from students over many months, and responded to some with threats of expulsion from the program.” For example, the company threatened to revoke a student’s visa when he complained to the State Department.

For the last 13 years, my project, Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies has focused on human trafficking of nannies and maids within the A-3/G-5 visa program, which include household workers for diplomats and employees of international organizations. Our work has shown the significant impact that improved oversight, education of workers and enforcement of consequences could have on curbing exploitation. We believe the key to successful improvements in this program has been collaboration with anti-trafficking service organizations and grassroots advocates who can share on-the-ground experiences with policymakers. There are still extensive improvements needed, particularly with worker education, but the progress has given us hope.

The State Department recently announced they would be completing a thorough review of the J-1 visa program. But as of this writing CETUSA is still sponsoring high school and college students on J-1 visas who plan to come to the United States. That’s why the National Guestworker Alliance (pictured above), the workers’ rights group supporting the students, is now calling on the government to immediately suspend CETUSA from the program.

Yet CETUSA is only one of many recruiting agencies. And A-3, G-5, and J-1 visas are only a few of the many visas with inherent weaknesses that leave participants vulnerable to exploitation by sponsoring individuals or agencies due to a weakly regulated sponsorship and penalty process.

The H-2A program for agricultural guest workers, H-2B program for non-agricultural guest workers, and the H-1B program for teachers, scientists and other “specialty” guest workers are other examples.

Consider these other cases of guestworker exploitation in the United States. In April this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a suit against the company Global Horizons for exploiting 400 Thai farmworkers working in Hawaii and Washington State. A company called Signal exploited more than 500 guest workers from India in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina. The Southern Poverty Law Center made history in December when it successfully brought a class-action human trafficking lawsuit on behalf of 350 Filipina teachers in Louisiana who came there with H1-B visas. It’s the first time the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has been used to protect a group rather than an individual. In this case, the trial next July will center on the allegations that the teachers were brought to the United States by labor contractors who extorted huge fees and confiscated their passports, effectively subjecting the teachers to forced labor.

Workers’ rights advocates, alongside anti-human trafficking advocates, have been urging the U.S. government to thoroughly review visa programs that depend on foreign labor contractors in order to minimize the vulnerability of workers to human trafficking and exploitation. Various drafts of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, notably the House version of the bill considered in 2008, have included extensive proposals for such regulations and remedies for victims, yet the U.S. government continues to fail in implementing serious protective reform. While some contend that our economy depends on cheap foreign labor, no one would argue that our economy requires the severe wage exploitation, fraudulent contracts, restriction of movement and the (sometimes violent) retaliation after complaints that we have seen repeatedly with these visa programs.

It’s long past time for the federal government to make meaningful changes to protect guest workers.