09/23/2008

SPLC, Worker Advocates Ask Homeland Security to Withdraw Flawed Guestworker Proposals

 

The Southern Poverty Law Center and more than 40 other advocacy organizations have asked the Department of Homeland Security to scrap proposed regulations that would open the door for more abuse of foreign guestworkers who already face rampant exploitation.

The Bush administration's proposed changes to the H-2B guestworker program would diminish accountability for employers and recruiters engaging in fraudulent and unlawful practices. They would also harm U.S. workers by greatly expanding the definition of temporary employment, opening up more jobs to foreign labor.

"This is just a new recipe for the same abuse and neglect we've seen in this program," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "At the end of the day, the employers using these programs would not be held accountable to anyone if they exploit their guestworkers."

In comments filed on Sept. 19 (PDF), the coalition recommends that the department withdraw the proposals and revise them to include protections for these guestworkers.

Under the H-2B guestworker program, U.S. employers can hire low-skilled foreign workers for temporary jobs in landscaping, construction, food processing and other nonagricultural industries. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for issuing visas for the workers.

The proposals would prohibit employers and recruiters from charging fees to guestworkers that often push them into debt and prevent them from complaining about abuses. However, the regulations rely on employers to vouch that they and their recruiters are following the regulation. There is no process for these workers or their advocates to combat fee abuses.

The department has also proposed excluding transportation costs, passports and visa and inspection fees as required reimbursements by employers. This ignores years of federal case law and will push these workers' wages below the federal minimum wage, violating the law.

"This only serves to keep these guestworkers in debt and at the mercy of abusive employers," Bauer said.

The proposals could also affect U.S. workers by altering the definition of temporary employment from jobs typically lasting up to one year to jobs lasting up to three years. This would open up many more jobs to the program, greatly increasing the potential for wages and working conditions for U.S. workers to be adversely impacted.

"These proposals ultimately affect all workers," Bauer said. "It is imperative that we ensure protections for the least among us because the effects ripple through the labor market."

The SPLC has filed a number of lawsuits to stop the abuse of guestworkers. In March 2007, the SPLC issued a groundbreaking report, Close to Slavery, about the widespread, systematic abuses they face. The report documents 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.