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IBEW Construction Organizing Director Ronald Burke (left) shakes hands with Romanian J-1 electrician and temporary organizer Aurel Potoroaca.

Scam Drew Willing Workers

January/February 2002 IBEW Journal

To Greenbelt, Maryland-based USA-IT, the recruiting organization that brought the foreign electrical workers to the United States, the con appeared foolproof.  Exploit an obscure State Department foreign visitor training program to import skilled electricians through respected non-profit sponsoring agencies like the YMCA. Call them trainees as the J-1 program requires, but recruit experienced electricians, lease them to non-union contractors for a cut of their wages and watch the profits roll in.

USA-IT purchased newspaper advertisements overseas seeking skilled electricians with proficiency in English to travel to the United States for a paid 18-month training program in the electrical field. In countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland and Ecuador, where the average worker makes $150 a month or less, there was no shortage of applicants.

Burke compared USA-IT to temporary employment agencies, with one important difference: under J-1 rules, the participating workers are limited to one employer only.

The big advantage over a typical temporary agency is that you, as an employer, own the employees for 18 months and you draw your unlimited pool of hungry applicants from impoverished nations, Burke said.

For Aurel Potoroaca, a Romanian electrical foreman earning $250 a month, the ad promised unprecedented opportunity. From his home in the province of Transylvania, the father of three calculated his earnings on the $10 hourly wage and saw big gains for his family from the year and a half away from his wife and children.

In interviews with representatives of Houston-based Integrated Electrical Services, Potoroaca was told the company was promising to pay for his transportation, and between 50 and 100 percent of the cost of lodging. Best of all, he would be trained in advanced electrical systems and management techniques.

The picture changed even before he arrived in the United States in August, 2000. Potoroaca learned on the airplane that he already owed USA-IT money for airfare. When he landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he and three others were placed in an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment. Rent, utilities, bed, pots, pans, a car to share and any other incidentals were deducted out of each paycheck. Tools purchased for each worker were also withheld from future earnings.

One pay stub of a J-1 electrician plainly reveals the take-home pay of $5.82 for 24 hours of work, following deductions for rent and supplies.

Even without the payroll deductions, the $10 hourly pay is less than half the wage union electricians earn.

From Shadow to Light