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The ugly truth about guest-worker programs

March 23, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR looks at the reality for guest workers in the U.S. today.

A PROTEST by guest workers shut down a Gulf Coast oil rig repair company just days after a new report likened the conditions of guest workers in the U.S. to slavery.

The March 16 walkout by workers at the Signal International marine fabrication company--along with a detailed study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)--highlighted the stakes in the upcoming congressional debate over the vast expansion of guest-worker programs.

The protest by the Signal workers in Pascagoula, Miss., took place following a pre-dawn raid by company security guards on the workers' living quarters--in which six workers were seized and locked in a room, until pressure from immigrant rights and labor activists forced their release.

"The Signal case is not unlike hundreds of other shipyards in the Gulf Coast," Saket Soni of the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity said in an interview. "The Signal workers, however, were treated with such decisive cruelty that they just couldn't take it anymore. "Signal held its own workers captive for hours before threatening to deport them. It conducted a pre-dawn raid on own employees, pulled workers out of bed at four in the morning and locked them up in their pajamas."

The company told the men--who were among 300 guest workers brought to the shipyard in December by the company on H-2B guest-worker visas--that they were terminated and would be transported out of the U.S.

What else to read

To support the fired workers at Signal International, call the company's Pascagoula general manager Ron Schnoor at 228-762-0010 and demand that the fired workers be reinstated, that workers be repaid for payments to labor recruiters, and that they be paid the promised wage of $18.50 per hour.

The Southern Poverty Law Center report "Close to Slavery: Guest-Worker Programs in the United States" is a damning indictment of guest-worker programs today.

David Bacon's article "Workers, Not Guests," in the February 17 edition of the Nation, outlines the current debate in Washington over the expansion of such programs.

The history of guest programs--and the politics behind them--is laid out in No One Is Illegal by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis, published by Haymarket Books last year.


The firings took place after workers complained about their living conditions. The workers say that 24 men were packed into 12-by-18-foot metal barracks, with only two toilets and four sinks. For this, the men were forced to pay $35 a day in rent. When the workers responded by organizing Signal H-2B Workers United, the company cut several of their $18.50 an hour pay in half--and fired six men who were at the center of the organizing.

The workers have gotten support from churches and labor groups--including striking workers at the Northrop Grumman's shipyard, also in Pascagoula.

But the six who were imprisoned by the company remain terminated. "They still have debts of $14,000 to $20,000 at home"--owed to labor recruiters who brought them to the U.S.--"and they're desperate to repay them," Soni said.

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THIS COMBINATION of debt and the requirement to work for a single employer makes guest workers easy prey for employers.

Workers in the H-2B program, which covers non-agricultural labor, are especially likely to face abuse, according to the SPLC report, Close to Slavery: Guest-Worker Programs in the United States, written by Mary Bauer, an attorney and activist.

Created under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the H-2B program is supposed to peg workers' pay to the prevailing wage in a particular industry. But since the U.S. Department of Labor claims that it lacks the authority to enforce prevailing wage standards, employers routinely pay much less.

Moreover, H-2B workers lack even the minimal protections that exist--on paper at least--for agricultural workers on the H-2A guest-worker program. "There is no free housing," Bauer wrote. "There is no access to legal services. There is no 'three-quarters guarantee' [of hours to be worked]." And the H-2B regulations "do not require an employer to pay the workers' transportation to the United States."

As a result, H-2B workers typically arrive in the U.S. in debt to recruiters for their visas and airfare.

"The entirely unregulated recruiting business can be quite lucrative," Bauer observed. "With more than 121,000 such workers recruited in 2005 alone, tens of millions of dollars in recruiting fees are at stake. This financial bonanza provides a powerful incentive for recruiters and agencies to import as many workers as possible--with little or no regard to the impact on individual workers and their families."

Employers gain additional leverage over workers by illegally taking their passports and locking them in isolated labor camps, the report found.

Companies have used all these tactics and more in post-Katrina Gulf Coast reconstruction, hiring guest workers to replace evacuees--at much lower wages.

In one high-profile case, Decatur Hotels, which owns 15 luxury hotels in New Orleans, used recruiters to hire 290 workers from the Dominican Republic, Peru and Bolivia. The workers paid between $3,500 and $5,000 for their visas. But when the company offered them 25 hours a week rather than the 40 hours promised by recruiters, they realized they'd never be able to repay their debts.

Last year, with the help of Bauer, the SPLC and New Orleans activists like Saket Soni, the workers sued the company. "In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, corporations have used the guest-worker program as a state-sponsored method of importing cheap labor," Soni said. "They were sold American dreams by recruiters, tricked into buying a visa, brought to the United States, and then trapped."

For workers in rural areas, the situation is even worse. Poor Guatemalans hired on H-2B visas to work in the forestry industry often handed over the deeds to their homes to labor recruiters as collateral on debts they incurred to obtain visas.

The work is brutal. Instead of being paid the $6- to $10-an-hour prevailing wage, the workers are often paid according to seedlings planted--and are expected to empty two bags of 1,000 seedlings each in a single day. Many are paid less than $25 a day, despite eight to 12 hours on the job.

Bauer cites the example of Álvaro Hernandez-López, a guest worker from Guatemala, who came to the U.S. in 2001 at the age of 45 to work for Express Forestry Research in the Southeast.

"It was really hard for us to get to the States and not earn any money," he told interviewers. "We were told that we had to leave our deeds to get the job. On a blank paper, we had to sign our name and hand over our deeds. They said that if we didn't sign this paper, they wouldn't bring us to the States to work."

According to Bauer, "this tactic is enormously effective in suppressing complaints about pay, working conditions or housing. U.S.-based companies deny knowledge of this abuse, but there is little doubt that they derive substantial benefit from their agents' actions. It is almost inconceivable that a worker would complain in any substantial way while a company agent holds the deed to the home where his wife and children reside."

For the farmworkers on the H-2A program--supposedly protected from the worst abuses of past--the picture is little different. In 2005--the last year for which data are available--the U.S. issued 32,000 H-2A visas. About three quarters were for Mexicans; most of the rest were from Jamaica and Guatemala.

In one case, about 20 guest workers from Thailand arrived in North Carolina in 2005 after paying recruiters $11,000 for jobs in the H-2A program. They were promised three years of work at $8.24 an hour. Instead, a labor broker seized their passports, visas and return airplane tickets, and kept them virtually imprisoned in a building owned by the labor broker. They filed suit in February 2007.

While H-2A guest workers do have more rights than their H-2B counterparts--such as representation from federally funded Legal Services attorneys--they are, in fact, excluded from the protections of the 1983 Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Labor maintains that it has no authority to prevent routine abuses of H-2A workers, such as seizure of passports and the employers' failure to pay workers' transportation costs. Even when the department does get involved, it imposes a two-year limit on investigating claims.

Bauer noted one result: In charges filed by Kentucky H-2A tobacco workers in 2005, the department's own six-month delay in processing a claim over the employer's wages and hours violations forced the case beyond this arbitrary deadline.

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ALONG WITH guest workers' low pay comes dangerous working conditions. If the families of workers killed on the job live outside the United States, several states pay only about 50 percent of what U.S. citizens would receive. Alabama pays nothing.

Guest workers injured on the job must contend with language barriers, complex state bureaucracies and employer blacklists if they miss work. "Those who are seriously injured face enormous, often insurmountable obstacles," Bauer notes.

Women workers on the H-2 programs must bear the additional burden of sexual harassment and rape, her report found. "[I]t is hard to imagine how a guest worker facing harassment on the job could alleviate her situation," she wrote. "Assuming that she, like most workers, had taken out substantial debt to obtain the job and given that she would not be permitted to work for any employer other than her offender, her options would be severely limited."

"Limited options" is the essence of guest-worker programs. By tying workers to a single employer, it institutionalizes a kind of indentured servitude.

This is true even of the H-1B guest-worker program for professional workers, widely used in the technology industry, said Colin Rajah, coordinator of the International Migrant Rights Program at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

"It's true that there's a small window in which H-1B workers can seek another employer," said Rajah, himself a former H-1B worker. "But when the dot-com bubble exploded, there were 500 H-1B workers losing their jobs a week"--leaving them without the possibility of remaining legal residents and forcing most to return to their home countries.

These days, Microsoft's Bill Gates is demanding a big expansion of H-1B visas, expected to total about 50,000 next year, according to the Web-based Immigration Daily News.

While Gates wants white-collar workers and professionals for high-tech industries, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pressing for an expansion of the blue-collar H-2A and H-2B visas into a millions-strong guest-worker system that would be the biggest expansion of unfree labor in the U.S. since slavery.

"The current guest-worker proposal is another weapon in corporate America's arsenal to institutionalize segregation in the workplace," said Justin Akers Chacón, co-author, with Mike Davis, of the book No One Is Illegal. "It's akin to other 'two-tier' strategies that have decimated union power in the last few decades and reduced the whole of agricultural labor to Dickensian servitude."

As an alternative, a coalition of immigrant rights groups and unions are expected demand legislation that would allow immigrant workers to gain green cards--work permits--in order to eliminate the single-employer stipulation of guest-worker plans. According to this proposal, workers would be able to self-petition for citizenship, regardless of their employer.

While some in the pro-immigrant camp have proposed an improved guest-worker program--including the National Council of La Raza and the Service Employees International Union--many immigrant rights activists reject any efforts to put a new face on a system that inherently violates workers' rights.

"A humane guest-worker program is a contradiction," said Saket Soni of the Alliance of Guest Workers. "The guest-worker program is being sold to the American public as a solution to America's so-called immigration problem. In reality, we don't have an immigration problem. What the U.S. has is an economic situation in which the U.S. is so dependent on cheap labor--cheap, exploitable labor--that it can't see a way out."

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