Adam Dean/New York Times

A pair of Indonesian labor activists originally scheduled to speak for ILR's Union Days were left unable to attend by two consecutive visa denials.

April 7, 2019

Indonesian Union Leaders, Slated to Speak at ILR Union Days, Denied Visas to Travel

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Indonesian garment workers Linda Ratnasari and Siti Chasanah, who were scheduled to speak at Cornell about their lives as sweatshop laborers on March 20, were unable to make it to the event due to the rejection of their visa applications by the State Department.

Their speech would have been part of the Nike Women Truth Tour — an event coordinated between the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and United Students Against Sweatshops — for Union Days, the school’s annual spring lecture series dedicated to discussing the future of the labor movement.

According to their USAS biographies, Ratnasari and Chasanah worked in Nike factories in Indonesia for a combined 16 years. After the company moved its production to other countries, the women said that they — along with 3,000 other workers — were denied legally owed severance pay.

Sweatshop allegations against Nike first arose in the 1970s. Following the work of various anti-sweatshop groups — including USAS — Nike audited its factories approximately 600 times, between 2002 and 2004.

In 2017, there were further allegations made by labor activists that Nike refused to allow the independent monitoring group the Worker Rights Consortium to inspect its contract factories — a claim the company denied. The Cornell Store ended its licensing contract with Nike that same year, citing failure to meet fair labor guidelines, The Sun reported.

The women have since become union leaders, with the main objective of holding Nike accountable to the Indonesian labor force. Their tour planned to highlight their experiences of inhumane treatment while working in factories — including harassment, overworking and wage theft — to ensure no other worker experiences the same abuses.

However, the State Department denied the women’s visas just days before they were set to speak, according to Kataryna Restrepo ’21, president of People’s Organizing Collective, a USAS local organization who co-sponsored Union Days.

Various organizations, including USAS and ILR, then sent letters to the State Department on behalf of the women to expedite the process for a second interview. Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, helped draft the letter in hopes that the two women would be able to make it to Union Days.

“The letter was not only in support of their coming, as [part of] an event that we find meaningful, but also to emphasize that this was an educational event,” Lieberwitz told The Sun.

But despite the school’s backing, their visas were once again denied on March 25.

The laborers’ visa troubles come as the United States has sought to clamp down on not just permanent immigration, but also temporary travel. Under the Trump administration, the rejection rate for short-term travel visas has gone up over 40 percent in the past two years, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

While citizens from 38 countries — most of which are Western and developed — can travel to the United States without a visa, Indonesian nationals must go through a comprehensive process before being granted the right to visit. According to the Indonesian U.S. Embassy, applicants must pay a non-refundable $160 fee, provide fingerprints and proof of income and pass an interview.

According to Restrepo, USAS leaders said the State Department asked the women to prove property ownership or show contracts in order to obtain visas.

“That’s a very western-centric, classist assumption that they would have that [documentation], considering that these are workers from rural areas in Indonesia,” Restrepo said.

“For a case like this where it’s clearly an educational event, clearly the speakers are planning on going back to their home country, there seems to be no justification for denying the visas,” Lieberwitz said.

“The whole idea of a university is to have exchanges of different ideas, different expertise, different perspectives,” Lieberwitz added. “When we have a situation where the State Department has denied visas, that inhibits our ability to have academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.”

USAS hopes to bring Indonesian union leaders to speak at a later date and will continue applying for their visas. The organization also has plans for “a media blast” to criticize the State Department for denying visas to Ratnasari and Chasanah, Restrepo said.