Guestworkers in the US, often young people on the J1 cultural exchange visa, face wage theft, unstable conditions and excessive work hours.

Ally is a student from Paraguay who came to PA in the J1 visa program for work and cultural exchange. Her McDonald's employer forced her to work overtime without extra pay. Photo by Kara Newhouse

Ally is a student from Paraguay who came to PA in the J1 visa program for work and cultural exchange. Her McDonald’s employer forced her to work overtime without extra pay. Photo by Kara Newhouse

The United States has long been the destination for foreign-born workers in search of upward mobility, and an opportunity for a safe and dignified life for their families. Since the 1800s, our nation has benefited from the work of immigrants and migrants as a source of economic growth and geographic expansion (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2013). Historically, many immigrants came from Europe and China, though the average American might associate modern foreign-born workers with the Spanish-speaking migrants in the agriculture industry.

This is no coincidence. The Braceros program allowed about 4.5 million Mexicans to work for U.S. growers during labor shortages between 1942 and 1964. Problematic features of this defunct program persist – such as wage theft, unstable and excessive work hours, substandard employer-controlled housing, and intimidation and abusive harassment– and affect thousands of current guestworkers in the United States (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2013).

The U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June 27, 2013, which called for, among other things, increasing the number of temporary work visas for unskilled immigrants participating in a State Department sponsored guestworker program (MacDonald, 2013). Senator Bernie Sanders asserted that discussions around guestworker provisions should focus on the lower-skilled J-1 Exchange Visitor visa program due to the increased competition for entry-level jobs (Jamieson, 2013).

Labor activists argued further that immigration reform should address the exploitation of guestworkers, as governmental protections could prevent the depression wages for all workers and create a highly vulnerable segment of the workforce (Jamieson, 2013; “Leveling Playing Field,” 2012; Peterson & Murray, 2013).

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued nearly 700,000 temporary guestworker visas—including approximately 175,000 J-1 visas under the Exchange Visitor program (Center for Immigration Studies, 2013). According to the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), guestworker programs are exploitative in several ways: workers are recruited with the understanding that they would work under respectable conditions and be able to earn a decent wage (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.a).

Instead, they often pay thousands of dollars in recruiter and visa fees to participate in the program, and become ensnared in debt. Similarly to the Braceros, many guestworkers experience wage theft, and are subjected to poor working conditions and abusive management (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.a). Living conditions offer no reprieve, as workers often are forced to live in substandard, employer-controlled housing (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.a). And while most people would simply quit their jobs rather than endure inhumane treatment, guestworkers cannot legally seek employment elsewhere; they also risk retaliation, deportation and debt that they cannot repay if they express their grievances (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.a).

These entrenched violations have often resulted in labor trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation of foreign-born workers, and according to report by The Dickinson School of Law at the Pennsylvania State University and NGA (“Leveling Playing Field,” 2012), domestic-born workers should take notice. These abuses are indicative of employment problems that U.S. employees also face and have implications for the broader workforce. The report found that unscrupulous employers have replaced permanent jobs with temporary positions, and have used coerced and powerless guestworkers as a source of a cheap and replaceable labor. Not only do these practices create insecurity where stability used to exist, but they also contribute to the end of decent wages and working conditions for everyone, including U.S. workers (“Leveling Playing Field,” 2012).

This article seeks to understand the plight of guestworkers in the United States through the description of J-1 Exchange Visitor program. Research for this paper was conducted on March 16, 2013. Widespread problems with the J-1 visa program will be illustrated through case studies of the Hershey’s and McDonald’s student guestworker scandals, and examination of the program as described by the U.S. State Department and the sponsoring programs that recruit students. Loopholes in the program that employers take advantage of will also be discussed.

Justice at Hershey’s campaign

On March 6, 2013, central Pennsylvania became the focal point of J-1 worker employment relations violations scandal for the second time in two years. The first incident involved about 200 international student guestworkers who began a campaign against candy maker Hershey’s on August 17, 2011. The student workers were expecting very different working conditions prior to arriving in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department

of State website, the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program “promotes mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by education and cultural exchanges,” (U.S. Department of State, n.d.). More importantly, the students based their expectations on interactions they had with previous J-1 participants, recruiters from Council for Educational Travel, USA (CETUSA)—which contracted the students through agencies in their home countries—and a few based expectations on their own previous experiences (Human Rights Delegation Report, 2011).

Upon arrival, approximately 400 foreign students from countries such as China, Turkey, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Ghana, and Thailand became caught in a web of contractual relationships between various corporations; work completed at a packing facility was done for one employer, whereas warehouse work was completed for another employer who deducted rent payments from their paychecks—whether the students were left with money to live on or not (Human Rights Delegation Report, 2011).

The students endured abusive supervision, unsafe and grueling working conditions often on night shifts —which isolated them from American workers—and automatic salary deductions for housing and other employment-related costs (Human Rights Delegation Report, 2011; Luce, 2013; Preston, 2012). The workers staged a sit-in on August 17, 2011 to protest against the abuses that they and many other student workers experienced at a packing facility in Palmyra, PA (Human Rights Delegation Report, 2011).

While the Hershey’s guestworkers demonstrated against unfair treatment, they also recognized the negative implications that abuses of the J-1 visa program had on the domestic workforce; in addition to demanding that Hershey’s stop exploiting student guestworkers, they also called for the payment of living wages for local workers (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.c).

This campaign caught the attention of the media and the labor movement, and garnered supporters in Pennsylvania and from across the country (Human Rights Delegation Report, 2011). The State Department reacted to the complaints on February 14, 2012, by banning CETUSA from participating in the J-1 program for two years (Fernandez, 2012). Additionally, in attempts “to bring the program back to its core cultural purposes,” (Preston, 2012, para. 4) the State Department revised rules under the cultural exchange program, prohibiting students from working in warehouse, construction, manufacturing and food-processing work (Preston, 2012). On November 14, 2012, CETUSA, the staffing agency SHS and Excel Logistics, Hershey’s warehouse operator, agreed to pay $213,042 in back wages, and Excel agreed to pay $143,000 in fines for health and safety violations (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012; National Guestworker Alliance, 2012).

McDonald’s Must Pay campaign

Given the Department of State’s rapid response to the complaint and the outpouring of public support that the Hershey’s campaign received, it is surprising that on March 6, 2013 a second student guestworker scandal in Pennsylvania was once again in the news; this time, it involved 15 McDonald’s students guestworkers in Harrisburg, PA. The students chose to work for McDonald’s for a few reasons: some wanted to be in close proximity to large metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and New York City (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

Many of the students decided to participate in the J1 program with McDonald’s simply because it was a company that they recognized (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013). This brand recognition caused students to expect very strict work standards and procedures at McDonald’s. A well-known corporation like McDonald’s seemed like a safer option than taking a risk with a no-name bed and breakfast (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

Some students learned about the exchange program through flyers posted at their universities, while others had friends and family members who participated in the same visa program (S. David Heydemann & a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013). After paying $3,000-$4,000 each (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013), students found themselves in a situation of “indentured servitude” (Costa, 2011b) where they were unable to purchase a return flight home, easily switch to another employer, or repay fees after leaving the position (Economic Policy Institute, 2011).

If they expressed their discontent with management, they were threatened with retaliation (National Guestworker Alliance, n.d.c). One 25-year-old student from Paraguay, a graphic design student, described a manager’s response to her complaints about forced overtime: student guestworkers in the past wanted to work double shifts.

Another student, 19, from Peru stated that workers—both male and female—were forced to live in an employer-owned basement, eight people to a room, without windows or privacy for a total of $2,000 per month. This arrangement was especially problematic for female workers from more conservative cultures, where women lived in separate living quarters (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

Last year, he worked for Wendy’s through the J-1 program and was happy with his experience; this time, however, working for McDonald’s was the extreme opposite of the positive cultural exchange that he had with Wendy’s (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013). McDonald’s managers could show up at their basement apartment at any time demanding that they work shifts on their days off, or the workers were expected to be on call with management sometimes calling ten minutes before shifts began, or at 5am or 6am (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

At the same time, management often did not provide consistent work hours to meet their basic needs in addition to covering rent payments, which were deducted automatically from each paycheck (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013). When workers requested more hours, management claimed that there weren’t any hours available (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

He added that both employers and the sponsoring agency, Geovision, had a responsibility of ensuring that abuses didn’t take place. “I think that McDonald’s is a good corporation. It’s an opportunity for all the people that work here… but they need to respect the dignity, the rights, and more benefits and [better] conditions for the [employees],” (a student guestworker, personal communication, March 16, 2013).

The students filed a complaint with the Department of State on March 6, 2013, and walked off the job to protest of work hours as short as four hours per week to shifts as long as 25 consecutive hours, unpaid wages, shoddy housing owned by the employer, and retaliation for voicing their discontent (Eidelson, 2013). Geovisions claimed to have a monthly check-in policy where student participants could give feedback on their experience, and problems could be resolved—the check-ins never occurred despite multiple requests by the students (S. David Heydemann, personal communication, March 16, 2013).


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Joyce Sinakhone

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