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Guestworker Exploitation

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When people talk about the undocumented immigration “problem” outside of Republican debates calling for giant fences to keep out brown people, politicians and pundits often speak of a guestworker program as a way to provide the cheap labor American businesses want without forcing people to cross without papers. There can be a sympathetic piece to this argument because thanks to the militarization of the border, those people are forced into very dangerous situations, including crossing way out in the desert when they can and do die of heat exhaustion and thirst. But the history of these programs is one of rank exploitation, with workers having few rights. That was certainly true in the Bracero Program. And it remains so today, as Michelle Chen explores:

 According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the guestworker labor force provides US employers jobs on the cheap, offering less in wages and virtually nothing in terms of labor rights or benefits.

EPI’s analysis of a decade of data on guestworkers under the H-2B visa program, which pipes immigrants into temporary low-wage service-industry jobs, shows that the visa allows bosses to employ guestworkers at “hourly wage rates that are far lower than state and national averages in the overwhelming majority of cases.” For example, in the most popular H-2B industry, landscaping and groundskeeping, “employers saved on average between $2.59 and $3.37 per hour by hiring an H-2B worker instead of a worker earning the national average wage.”

 This is not the standard protectionist argument about immigrants’ “taking jobs,” it’s about inequality being baked into a contract system that grants legal status in exchange for rights. In a sense, contracted guestworkers are less free than undocumented workers who can at least try to switch employers. As a recent NPR story on agricultural guestworkers points out, despite the dangers of living in the country without papers, undocumented workers at least have relative autonomy (albeit without any legal protections) to try to escape an abusive boss and reenter the underground labor market.

 A civil suit recently brought by a group of Jamaican H-2B guestworkers charges the Kiawah Golf Resorts in South Carolina with systematic wage theft, alleging that the resort violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and never paid the mandated wage set under the program’s guidelines, … in part to various travel costs and fees imposed on the workers as a condition of their employment. Some workers had allegedly been underpaid by as much as $2.20 per hour. They were working as housekeepers, servers, and bell persons for patrons who paid up to $1,000 per night for their lavish service.

Complaining about the system can cost a worker a livelihood and legal status. Shellion Parris, a former H-2B worker from Jamaica, helped launch a federal crackdown when she and coworkers organized an uprising against a Florida staffing agency, charging them with fraud and exploitation after they were denied the hotel housekeeping jobs they were promised and held in squalid conditions. Her hopes of vindication were upturned, however, when her petition for immigration relief foundered, leaving her destitute and stranded abroad after paying thousands. “We were all in debt when we came here,” Parris told The Nation last October. “We’re still in debt.”

These guestworker programs are just too problematic and open for labor exploitation to be part of the solution to immigration and labor problems. Republicans in Congress have of course just expanded the program and lowering the very limited labor protections in the program. Republicans read these stories and think, “yeah, we need a lot more of this, except maybe stopping the workers from filing civil suits. Tort reform!”

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