CLOSE TO SLAVERY;Guest Worker Programs in the U.S.A.

 In his 2007 State of the Union Address, President Bush called for legislation creating a “legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis.” Doing so, the president said, would mean “they won’t have to try to sneak in.” Such a program has been central to Bush’s past immigration reform proposals. Similarly, recent congressional proposals have included provisions that would bring potentially millions of new “guest” workers to the United States.

What Bush did not say was that the United States already has a guestworker program for unskilled laborers — one that is largely hidden from view because the workers are typically socially and geographically isolated. Before we expand this system in the name of immigration reform, we should carefully examine how it operates.

Under the current system, called the H-2 program, employers brought about 121,000 guestworkers into the United States in 2005 — approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries.

These workers, though, are not treated like “guests.” Rather, they are systematically exploited and abused. Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market — the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who “import” them. If guestworkers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.

Federal law and U.S. Department of Labor regulations provide some basic protections to H-2 guestworkers — but they exist mainly on paper. Government enforcement of their rights is almost non-existent. Private attorneys typically won’t take up their cause.

Bound to a single employer and without access to legal resources, guestworkers are:

  • routinely cheated out of wages;
  • forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs;
  • held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents;
  • forced to live in squalid conditions; and,
  • denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel recently put it this way: “This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”

Congressman Rangel’s conclusion is not mere hyperbole — and not the first time such a comparison has been made. Former Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams described the old “bracero” program — the guestworker program that brought thousands of Mexican nationals to work in the United States during and after World War II — as a system of “legalized slavery.” In practice, there is little difference between the bracero program and the current H-2 guestworker program.

The H-2 guestworker system also can be viewed as a modern-day system of indentured servitude. But unlike European indentured servants of old, today’s guestworkers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens. When their work visas expire, they must leave the United States. They are, in effect, the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.

This report is based on interviews with thousands of guestworkers, a review of the research on guestworker programs, scores of legal cases and the experiences of legal experts from around the country. The abuses described here are too common to blame on a few “bad apple” employers. They are the foreseeable outcomes of a system that treats foreign workers as commodities to be imported as needed without affording them adequate legal safeguards or the protections of the free market.

The H-2 guestworker program is inherently abusive and should not be expanded in the name of immigration reform. If the current program is allowed to continue at all, it should be completely overhauled. Recommendations for doing so appear at the end of this report.

> A Brief History of Guestworkers in America
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