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Guestworker Exploitation



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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  • DrDick

    Exploitation is the reason guest worker programs exist, along with driving down labor costs.

    • liberalrob

      The cheapest laborer is the one you don’t have to pay; absent regulation, in a capitalist system the natural tendency is (as you said) to drive down labor costs as low as possible. The concept of slavery is alive and well; only the term itself is taboo.

  • Brett

    If you’re going to have something like this, you need it to just be a general “work visa” that lets them go for any employer who will take them in the period it’s good for. Tying it specifically to an employer makes it very prone to exploitation (which is more or less the point – the farmers wouldn’t be using them if it didn’t give them an advantage over native workers).

    That EPI post was a gem, too. It had a very good anecdote of a Florida farmer blatantly saying that his family became the first to go for the program due to a rival farmer offering his workers higher wages, causing them to leave. He could have hired them back with higher wages, but “then he’d have to negotiate everything”.

    • Chuchundra

      I fee the same about H1-B’s and similar visa programs. Once the workers are here, they should be free to switch jobs and sell their labor on the open market.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      What countries have a general work visa? Every country I have worked in outside the US have only tied work visas. That is you can only work for a specific authorized employer and if you cease to work for that employer you must leave the country or get a new visa. You also have to prove that there is no indigenous person in the country capable of doing the job. Often you can get a business visa that is not tied to a specific employer. But, a work visa and a work permit has in my experience always been tied to a specific employer.

      • Brett

        Yep, and why do you suppose that is? Businesses don’t lobby for general work permits – nobody does. They do, however, lobby for tied work permits.

      • los

        I can hear the ‘righteous’ ire of Conservative Justice Warriors: “They do the slavery that Americans won’t do! And we will fix that! We will make America great again! The South will rise again!!”


  • As always, Tom Lehrer was on it a long time ago:

    Should Americans pick crops?
    [Sen.] George [Murphy] says “no,”
    ‘Cause no-one but a Mexican
    Would stoop so low.

    And after all even in Egypt the Pharaohs
    Had to import Hebrew braceros. . .

  • Nick never Nick

    The titanic problem that any guest worker program has is the fact that the workers are recruited in foreign countries, often by for-profit local agents. In practice, this means that people pay to work — the names that get submitted to the embassy are the people who borrow money, often at destructive rates, to get their names on them. This gap between recruiter and employer is a basic evil of trans-national labour, and it means that the workers are being paid much less than they receive on paper, that they are in a far worse bargaining position (because if they lose their job, they can’t pay back their initial loan), and that sometimes they’ve simply been downright cheated into paying more money for the work than it’s possible to earn.

    Workers who need to earn more money to return home often end up out of status — then they are open to being literally enslaved. I knew Thai workers in that state on Saipan, an American territory.

    Canada only recently developed a Temporary Foreign Worker program, and it immediately expanded far past its initial remit, created ill feeling on the part of Canadians, treated TFWs badly, and caused the growth of of a large contingent of people who became increasingly a part of Canadian society as time went on, but had no permanent rights here. This was encapsulated in the plight of a TFW woman here in Edmonton who was in a car accident and paralyzed — the government started proceedings to send her back to the Philippines, where she would have been well and truly fucked; but under the logic of the TFW program, she has no claim on Canada. The longer these programs run and the more people are in them, the more situations like this develop.

  • cpinva

    not to be real nit picky or pedantic, and I realize your area of speciality is history, but I beg you Dr. Loomis, take a remedial grammar & syntax class. use commas; it’s ok, you don’t have a quota. it will make your posts much, much easier to read and understand the first time or two around, instead of (some of us, me for one.) having to read it, insert correct punctuation, and then fully appreciate the point you’re making.

    “The cheapest laborer is the one you don’t have to pay; absent regulation, in a capitalist system the natural tendency is (as you said) to drive down labor costs as low as possible. The concept of slavery is alive and well; only the term itself is taboo.”

    this. the only reason machines don’t do all of this is because some crops just have to be picked by hand or they’ll be damaged beyond sale as first class produce. the coal mine companies have managed to reduce actual human labor to about the minimum, with the introduction of machinery that does 90% of the work human miners used to do.

    • sparks

      I always find that a sentence with a lot of commas can be rewritten to eliminate most or all of those commas.

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