03/12/2007

New Center Report: Foreign Guestworkers Routinely Exploited by U.S. Employers

Guestworkers who come to the United States are routinely cheated out of wages; forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs; held virtually captive by employers who seize their documents; forced to live in squalid conditions; and denied medical benefits for injuries, according to a new report released by the Center today.

The report  Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States  comes as Congress is about to begin debating immigration legislation that could greatly expand guestworker programs to cover hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new temporary foreign workers.

"Congress should reform our broken immigration system, but reform should not rely on creating a vast new guestworker program," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project and author of the report. "The current program is shamefully abusive in practice, and there is almost no enforcement of worker rights."

The 48-page report, based on interviews with thousands of guestworkers and dozens of legal cases, describes the systematic abuse of workers under what is known as the H-2 system administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. The program was created in 1943 to allow the sugar cane industry to bring in temporary workers and was revised by Congress in 1986 to include non-agricultural workers.

Employers in 2005 "imported" more than 121,000 temporary H-2 guestworkers  32,000 H-2A workers for agricultural work and 89,000 H-2B workers for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries.

"Guestworkers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs," Bauer said. "But all too often, their dreams are based on lies, their hopes shattered by the reality of a system that treats them as commodities. They're the disposable workers of the global economy."

Hugo Martin Recinos-Recinos, a former guestworker from Guatemala, borrowed thousands of dollars to pay recruiting fees for a forestry job in the United States. "I had to leave the deed to my home," he said. "When I got to the U.S., I was always underpaid, living in small hotel rooms and working 10-hour days. The debt from my recruitment and travel to the States made the low pay even harder to bear. When I filed a lawsuit about the conditions, my family and I were threatened. The guestworker program was abuse from beginning to end."

The most fundamental problem with the H-2 system is that employers hold all the cards. They decide which workers can come to the United States and which cannot. They decide whether a worker can stay in this country. They usually decide where and under what conditions workers live and how they travel.

Guestworkers are typically powerless to enforce their rights. "If guestworkers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation," the report says.

"Guestworkers don't enjoy the most basic protections of a free labor market  the ability to change jobs if they are cheated or abused by their employer," Bauer said.

The rights that H-2 workers do have exist mostly on paper. The federal government has failed to protect them from unscrupulous employers, and most cannot obtain private legal assistance to enforce their rights through the courts.

The report concludes that the H-2 guestworker program should not serve as a model for immigration reform, but in fact should be overhauled if allowed to continue. It offers specific recommendations to remedy the worst abuses.

"The mistreatment of temporary foreign workers in America today is one of the major civil rights issues of our time," said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "For too long, we've reaped the economic benefits of their labor but have ignored the incredible degree of abuse and exploitation they endure.

"Congress now has an opportunity to right this terrible wrong. As part of the reform of our broken immigration system, Congress should eliminate the current H-2 system entirely or commit to making it a fair program with strong worker protections that are vigorously enforced."