06/11/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will Corporations Win More Exploitable Workers?

If the business lobby has its way, immigration reform will bring one group of immigrant workers out of the shadows while trapping another in exploitation.

Corporations have fought hard to make sure immigration reform includes as many guestworkers as possible with as few labor protections as possible: an endless stream of cheap, exploitable labor.

In an op-ed in Roll Call this Monday, NGA Legal and Policy Director J.J. Rosenbaum explains how the current Senate bill puts future immigrant workers at risk:

The current Senate bill would provide one small category of guestworkers--those on the proposed W visa--whistleblower protections and the ability to change employers without losing legal status. But the bill risks leaving hundreds of thousands of guestworkers subject to captive labor. And lobbyists are pushing to make sure that there are as many of those guestworkers as possible.

Over the past week, guestworker recruiters have raced to Capitol Hill to argue that key worker protections shouldn't apply to the J-1 student guestworker program. In fact, the J-1 program has been the site of some of the most egregious cases of guestworker abuse.

Last week, I introduced you to KahInn Lee, a J-1 student guestworker from Malaysia who helped expose one of them. KahInn paid $3,000 to participate in the J-1 program, then found herself working at a McDonald's in Central Pennsylvania, facing sub-minimum wage pay, shifts of up to 25 hours with no overtime pay, and threats of firing and deportation to suppress complaints.

Thousands of guestworkers across visa categories face this kind of exploitation. Jorge Rios, another McDonald's student guestworker, told journalists this week: "In our case we depended on these jobs only for three months, but there are many people who depend on these jobs for their whole life."

Even without whistleblower protections, KahInn and her fellow student guestworkers were brave enough to join the NGA and took action. They went from a strike in the streets of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the halls of Capitol Hill to the front door of the McDonald's CEO. Last week they took their fight worldwide, helping organize a Global Day of Action against McDonald's abuse of guestworkers in more than 30 countries.

Members of Congress are finally taking notice. Senator Bernie Sanders told his colleagues last week: "I fear very much that this J-1 program is being exploited by corporations like Hershey's and McDonald's as an effort to simply bring students from abroad to work at low-paying jobs in the United States."

So what can the Senate do today to protect tomorrow's guestworkers from captive labor? How can it protect the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them in the same sectors from being trapped in a race to the bottom? J.J. explains:

Severe exploitation of guestworkers has become commonplace across visa categories. As the Senate makes the final changes to its immigration bill ... it needs to include strong worker protections for all guestworkers, regardless of visa program or industry. That includes whistleblower protections for workers who come forward to expose employer abuse, the ability for guestworkers to change employers without losing legal status, and rules that prevent recruiters from profiting from exploitation.

Please tell Congress that immigration reform needs to protect guestworkers--for their sake, and for the future of the U.S. workers alongside them.