New report details abuse of guest workers

A report, “Close to slavery: guest worker programs in the United States,” released by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center earlier this month, details abuses faced by workers who come to the U.S. under the H-2 system, administered by the Department of Labor.

In 2005, over 121,000 temporary guest workers entered this country under the program. Thirty-two thousand were destined to work in agriculture on H-2A visas, while another 89,000 with H-2B visas worked in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other nonagricultural jobs.

While the largest contingent is from Mexico and most are from Latin America, H-2 workers are recruited, usually by labor brokers, from all over the world.

This timely report, issued as Congress is poised to start debating immigration legislation and after President Bush called in his State of the Union address for a “legal and orderly” temporary worker program, is based on interviews with thousands of guest workers.

Quoting House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel’s observation, “This guest-worker program’s the closest thing I’ve seen to slavery,” the report calls the H-2 visa holders “the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.”

While making recommendations to strengthen federal protections for guest workers, the report calls the H-2 program “inherently abusive” and says it “should not be expanded in the name of immigration reform. If the program is allowed to continue at all, it should be completely overhauled.”

Among the findings:

Labor brokers typically charge workers recruiting fees ranging from $500 to more than $10,000, forcing them into overwhelming debt on which they must often pay exorbitant interest rates. The subcontracting system also lets the workers’ actual employers claim they have no responsibility for their working and living conditions, which are often harsh and squalid.

Once in the U.S., workers may find they are working far fewer hours, for a shorter period of time and for lower pay than the meager sums they were promised, making it impossible to repay the debt. On the other hand, workers who average over 40 hours a week are rarely paid overtime, and are often paid for fewer hours than they actually worked. Many are paid far less than the minimum wage.

Employers have sole power over whether a worker can enter or stay in the U.S. Bosses often hold workers’ passports and Social Security cards to make sure they will complete their contracts. Those who complain can be fired and then declared “illegal” by their employers or barred from future work.

Though their jobs can be among the most dangerous, and most guest workers are legally entitled to workers’ compensation, they are often denied appropriate medical care and benefits for job-related injuries.

While the U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for the 2-H program, it rarely enforces federal regulations concerning guest workers. The department does not bar employers who violate labor laws from bringing in more workers.

Discrimination based on national origin, race, age, disability and gender is built into the H-2 system, and sexual harassment of women workers is widespread.

Among the SPLC’s recommendations are that workers should not be bound to a specific employer, that they should have a way to gain permanent residency with their families, that employers should pay for recruiting and transporting workers, and that recruiting by subcontractors should be barred. Also, workers should receive workers compensation benefits and be protected from discrimination in the same way as U.S. workers.

The report, prepared by Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, and researcher Sarah Reynolds, can be obtained at .