SPLC report: Federal guestworker program encourages employers to exploit workers and violate human, civil rights

As Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform, lawmakers should not look to the current federal guestworker program – a program rife with labor and human rights violations – as a model for handling the future flow of low-wage foreign workers, according to an SPLC report released today.

Some policymakers and business groups have suggested that immigration legislation should include a new or expanded guestworker program to allow workers to enter the country for temporary jobs and to provide a steady supply of cheap foreign labor for employers. But this report – Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States – makes clear that such an expansion would be disastrous for those workers and for low-wage workers in the U.S. whose interests are undermined by the program.

“Lawmakers should seize this moment to stop the rampant exploitation and legalized human trafficking enabled by a failed guestworker system,” said SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer, author of the report. “These deeply flawed programs create incentives for employers to import farmworkers or other laborers they can abuse and toss out like trash. They sacrifice worker safety and civil rights for the profits of abusive employers, and they harm U.S. workers as well.”

First published in 2007, Close to Slavery has been updated to include changes to the program during the past six years as well as new stories of the abuse that persists. Since its initial release, Close to Slavery has become the definitive assessment of the modern H-2 guestworker program. The SPLC has represented thousands of guestworkers in lawsuits and recovered millions of dollars from employers who cheated them out of wages. Many guestworkers have been held virtually captive by the employers who “import” them, often living in squalid conditions. 

Despite the exposure of systemic problems, attempts to reform the program have been largely blocked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and guestworker employers.

“The treatment of guestworkers is important to the civil rights community because guestworkers face severe social and economic discrimination as well as inadequate labor protections,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The treatment of temporary guestworkers reflects our moral values as a country. It is time to either end or seriously examine a system that is designed to subject humans to the violation of their civil and human rights.”

Close to Slavery describes how guestworker abuse often starts before the worker arrives in the United States. Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. If they complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.

Employers decide which workers can come to the United States and which cannot. They decide whether a worker can stay in this country. And they usually decide where and under what conditions workers live and how they travel.

When recruited in their home countries, these workers are often forced to pay enormous sums to obtain the right to be employed in low-wage jobs in the United States. Many borrow money at high interest rates to pay recruiting fees to labor contractors, putting them in a situation of debt peonage. Many report leaving the deed to a home in exchange for a worker visa, leaving them vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous employers.  

Low-wage U.S. workers suffer, as well, from guestworker exploitation, because many employers would rather hire vulnerable foreign laborers who have little power to protect themselves from wage theft or poor working conditions.

The SPLC recommends that if the current H-2 program is permitted to continue at all, it should be completely revamped to address the vast disparity in power between guestworkers and their employers. Recommendations for reform are contained in the report.