SPLC denounces efforts to block protections for guestworkers, U.S. workers

Foreign guestworkers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs and held virtually captive by employers.

Now, new U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regulations that will help protect guestworkers from exploitation as well as protect job opportunities for U.S. workers are under attack by some federal lawmakers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center denounced efforts to gut these regulations at a news conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today. Several members of Congress are attempting to stop the rules from being implemented. Their actions will eviscerate important protections for temporary foreign workers and make it easier for employers to hire these workers instead of U.S. workers.

“Let’s be clear: Any lawmaker who supports this amendment is supporting less access to jobs for U.S. workers and encouraging the exploitation of the foreign workers filling those positions,” said SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer. “Our country is better than this. Members of Congress must oppose this effort to gut these important regulations.”

The DOL announced new regulations governing the H-2B guestworker program in February. Only days before the new rules were scheduled to go into effect, a number of businesses and interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, obtained a court injunction blocking them. The DOL appealed the decision and is awaiting a ruling by a federal court in Atlanta.

Also, last fall, the DOL issued a rule that would prohibit employers from legally underpaying H-2B workers, but a bipartisan group of legislators voted to postpone the rule’s implementation for a year.

As part of the coordinated effort to prevent these regulations from taking effect, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) introduced an amendment to kill both rules. The amendment was adopted by the Senate appropriations committee last month. In the other chamber, a House subcommittee approved a draft bill last week that would effectively kill the regulations by denying funding and barring them from taking effect. The full committee may vote on the bill as early as Wednesday.

Representatives of the AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute joined the SPLC in denouncing efforts to stop these regulations.

“Any attempt to gut the H-2B rule is a shameful effort by politicians who are more invested in catering to business interests than protecting the welfare of workers,” said Ana Avendaño, director of immigration and community action for the AFL-CIO.

The H-2B guestworker program is a decades-old government program that allows U.S. businesses to bring in temporary workers when they can’t find enough workers here to fill low-skill, non-farm jobs. H-2B workers are commonly employed in the landscaping, forestry, construction, hospitality and seafood processing industries. The program’s structure, however, lends itself to pervasive abuse, leaves many workers without sufficient protections under the law and leads to the displacement of U.S. workers.

“All of the data I've looked at suggest that employers have been using the current H-2B rules as a way to degrade the wages of U.S. workers in major industries such as landscaping, forestry, construction, seafood processing and hospitality,” said Daniel Costa, immigration policy analyst for the Economic Policy Institute. “Most of these industries are suffering from high unemployment rates and stagnant wages. The Department of Labor’s new H-2B rules are modest and simply ensure a fair wage is paid to all workers and that millions of unemployed workers are adequately recruited.”

The new rules would provide U.S. workers with increased access to jobs and equal rights on the job when they are performing the same work as H-2B workers. They also protect H-2B workers from exploitative working conditions.

The new rules would also provide important protections to prevent human trafficking, debt bondage, fraud, the charging of exorbitant fees by overseas recruiters, gross wage underpayment and other severe abuses. A 2007 SPLC report, Close to Slavery, detailed the abuses that are part of the flawed H-2B program. Many of the new regulations mirror the report’s recommendations.