12/19/2008

New Bush Guestworker Rules Weaken Worker Protections, Ignore Public Comments

A foreign worker plants trees on public land for a timber contractor - an often dangerous, grueling job. Labor contractors who bring in these workers on short-term, temporary H-2B visas must guarantee a minimum hourly wage and certify that they are unable to find enough domestic workers to do the job. Recent changes will open the guestworker program to more abuse of foreign workers and make it easier for employers to replace U.S. workers with temporary foreign labor.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of immigrant rights advocates criticized changes to the nation's guestworker program that will open the program to more abuse of foreign workers while making it easier for employers to replace U.S. workers with temporary foreign labor.

The final regulations for the nation's H-2B guestworker program, issued by the Bush administration today, will go into effect January 18.

The H-2B guestworker program is used by businesses to hire low-skilled temporary foreign labor. Members of the Low Wage Workers Legal Network, a coalition of immigrant rights advocates, said the program offers weak enforcement and reduces labor protections for workers.

"These regulations are a significant step backward from the fair treatment of working people in the United States," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project, a member organization of the network. "We will be looking carefully at these regulations and exploring the options available to prevent them from going into effect next year."

The SPLC documented widespread abuse in the H-2B program in its 2007 report, Close to Slavery. The report describes rampant wage violations, recruitment abuses, seizure of identity documents and squalid living conditions. Guestworkers, whose visas do not allow them to change jobs, typically have little recourse if they are exploited.

The new regulations eliminate the role of state employment offices in upholding standards while expanding the types of jobs that are considered to be temporary – and therefore eligible for the program – to include jobs that will last up to three years. Currently, guestworkers can be hired for no longer than one year at a time.

When these changes were proposed, the Low Wage Workers Legal Network compiled extensive comments criticizing the changes proposed by the U.S. departments of Labor and Homeland Security. These comments were endorsed by leading national labor, immigrant and Latino organizations.

The final regulations ignored most of those criticisms and suggestions.

Under the new rules, the Department of Labor will enforce standards through audits that take place after violations have occurred.

"This is after the harm has been done, the workers are gone and no remedy can be offered," said D. Michael Dale of the Northwest Workers' Justice Project, a member of the network. "The department's record of enforcement of standards has been abysmal."

In addition to the SPLC, organizations of the Low Wage Workers Legal Network involved in preparing the regulation comments included The Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. in Zacatecas, Mexico; the Equal Justice Center in Austin; Friends of Farmworkers, Inc. in Philadelphia; Global Workers Justice Alliance in New York City; North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, the Northwest Workers' Justice Project in Portland, Ore.; Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago; and the Workers Rights Law Center of New York in New Rochelle.