Feb. 2, 2012
State Department Heeds National Guestworker Alliance Call to Bar Major J-1 Recruiter
Congratulations to the National Guestworker Alliance for this major victory!
Today, in a vindication of the six-month campaign by the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), the U.S. State Department announced it had barred major student guestworker recruiter CETUSA from the J-1 summer work travel visa program.
The State Department is also considering major structural changes to the J-1 program, which the NGA has pressed to protect future student workers.
CETUSA had sourced student workers into exploitation at the Hershey’s Chocolate plant in Palmyra, PA. Students organized to stop abuses, and demanded that Hershey’s turn the temporary jobs filled by J-1s back into living wage jobs for local workers. CETUSA responded with threats and retaliation.
“The State Department’s ban on CETUSA is a big win for the students, and a blow against the larger trend of labor recruiters and companies using guestworkers to hollow out industries and undercut wages and conditions all over America,” said NGA Director Saket Soni.
“Corporations like Hershey’s and labor recruiters like CETUSA have turned the J-1 cultural exchange program into the country’s largest guestworker program, and profited from captive workers earning low wages,” Soni said.
In August 2011, on the eve of the Occupy movement, student guestworkers at the Hershey’s packing plant joined the NGA and held a factory occupation—making the pages of the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Washington Post.
The jobs at the Hershey’s Chocolate plant had once been union jobs that came with rights, respect, and a living wage. Hershey’s subcontracted the jobs, and labor recruiter CETUSA provided Hershey’s with students on J-1 visas to work back-breaking shifts at low wages.
Students had paid thousands of dollars for the opportunity to come to the U.S., believing they were coming for a cultural exchange.
“I hope this sends a clear message to other recruiters like CETUSA: we will NOT be your captive workers,” said Harika Duygu Ozer, an NGA member and former J-1 student worker at the Hershey’s plant from Turkey. “Now the State Department needs to make laws so that the next group of workers that are made captive by recruiters don’t have to risk being fired and deported or go on strike, just to get their basic rights respected.”
Chen Wen, an NGA member and former J-1 student worker at the Hershey’s plant from China, said: “The most important thing is that the State Department make changes that improve and restore faith in the J-1 program. We can prevent another CETUSA from happening if the State Department has real rules to govern the program and create a real cultural exchange program.”
The NGA brought a State Department complaint on behalf of the student guestworkers, providing overwhelming evidence of abuses by Hershey’s subcontractors and recruiter. The NGA triggered four federal investigations including the State Department’s, proposed key policy and regulatory changes in the J-1 program, and convened national immigration and labor advocacy organizations to call on the State Department to shut CETUSA down.
“The State Department’s broader changes to the J-1 visa program have to protect the right to organize for guestworkers,” said Jennifer J. Rosenbaum, NGA Legal Director. “As lawmakers and candidates talk about expanding guestworker programs, the Hershey’s story reminds us that if guestworkers don’t have the right to organize, wages and conditions fall for all workers.”
The National Guestworker Alliance is a membership organization of guestworkers engaging in workplace fights across many industries to win dignified conditions, just migration policy, and new rights and protections for all workers.