Do more foreign guest-workers mean more potential for exploitation?

March 10, 2013

The most vocal opponents of immigration reform say it's not just the fear of losing jobs to foreign workers that fuels their cause, but also a genuine concern for the welfare of immigrants who are likely to be exploited by employers who want cheap labor to pad their bottom line. It's a concern that pro-immigration advocates say they share -- and that a new controversy over foreign student labor at McDonald's has pushed into the spotlight.

McDonald's is under fire for allegedly exploiting foreign students whom the company brought to the United States on three-month J-1 visas, which are intended to foster cross-cultural exchanges for international youth to experience life in this country. The Wall Street Journal reports that 15 foreign students brought over on the program filed complaints with the State and Labor departments that alleged various worker abuses:

Some said they were given so few hours that they hardly earned any money after their boss and landlord deducted rent from their paychecks. Others said they were forced to work shifts as long as 25 hours straight without being paid for overtime. … The students allege that they were paid less than the minimum wage, lived in substandard housing, and were threatened with termination or deportation after they voiced concerns.

The Nation's Josh Eidelson has more about the strike staged by the foreign students to highlight their complaints:

Immigration reform's opponents believe such cases are proof that employers just want more workers they can force to labor under substandard conditions. In addition to the controversy at McDonald's, foreign student workers under the same J-1 program recently protested a Hershey's plant for exploitation. The issue is a deep concern for labor unions who support immigration as well. In the past, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka told ABC News, explaining why the issue led the union to oppose the 2007 immigration deal, such programs led foreign workers to get "cheated out of wages, they weren't given what was rightfully due to them. They were forced to work under unsafe conditions. They were forced to accept substandard wages. They couldn't say anything, because if they did, [the employer] would jerk their permit and deport them."

That said, many immigration advocates argue that temporary-worker programs can still be successful -- but only if they're subject to adequate government oversight and regulation. The AFL-CIO now says that it's open, in theory, to a guest-worker program, and that it's trying to compromise with the Chamber of Commerce on the issue. But the program would have to be designed in a way that would "protect the wages and working conditions of lesser-skilled workers -- foreign or domestic."

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Ezra Klein | March 10, 2013