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January/February 2002 issue of IBEW Journal

Romanian J-1 electrician and temporary organizer Aurel Potoroaca

Imagine a place where workers are forced to toil under intolerable working conditionsroutinely sworn at, ridiculed and intimidated. Crowded into cramped living quarters, monitored like prisoners, victimized by arbitrary removal from the work rolls. Their reward: an ever-dwindling paycheck after required deductions for tools, food and other basic necessities.

The coal fields of the 19th century? Life in the former Communist Eastern bloc? A Third World sweatshop?

No.  America in the 21st century.

These practices are examples of the extreme treatment non-union contractors inflicted on foreign electrical workers in the United States before the IBEW helped uncover the abuses. Employing some of the most reprehensible tactics to isolate and financially constrain the workers, the scheme made millions for a Maryland labor broker who manipulated immigration rules, ignored labor laws and treated hundreds of workers as indentured servants.

Under the J-1 visa program, foreign workersmany of whom were from poor countries in Eastern Europewere forced to endure company town working conditions that unions fought against for so long in America.

Now, thanks in part to the work of tenacious IBEW organizers, the USA-IT electrician exchange training program has been temporarily shut down; the Justice Department has launched an investigation, and up to 400 of the exploited workers have joined the IBEW for the duration of their visas. The U.S. State Department is in the process of rewriting the program rules so the cultural and educational training program cannot be manipulated into a for-profit cheap labor conduit. And the U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the improper use of the J-1 program denied American citizens jobs.

These people were virtual slaves, said IBEW Construction Organizing Director Ronald Burke. It was unbelievable that it was happening in this country.


Organizing and
Power IBEW
Fight Against
Of Immigrant

From Shadow to Light