When it comes to housing, guestworkers aren’t treated like “guests” of the United States at all. In fact, they are frequently forced to live in squalor. Many find themselves held captive by unscrupulous employers or labor brokers who confiscate their passports, restrict their movements, extort payments from them, and threaten them with arrest and deportation if they attempt to escape.

Under federal regulations, employers hiring H-2A workers must provide them with free housing. The housing must be inspected and certified in advance as complying with applicable safety and health regulations. In practice, the quality of housing provided to H-2A workers varies widely and is often seriously substandard, even dangerous.91

H-2B workers have even less protection. There are no general federal regulations governing the conditions of labor camps or housing for H-2B workers. State and local laws also generally do not cover housing for H-2B workers. In practice, this means that H-2B workers are often provided housing that lacks even basic necessities, such as beds and cooking facilities.

Because the Department of Labor (DOL) has failed to promulgate any regulations related to H-2B worker housing, employers that choose to provide housing to H-2B workers (and most do, for reasons of practical necessity) are permitted to charge rent. The rent — often exorbitant — is generally deducted from the workers’ pay. This often results in workers earning far less than they expected and sometimes substantially less than the minimum wage.92

Profiting Off Guestworker Housing

When H-2B workers arrived from India to Signal International’s shipyards in Louisiana and Texas, they were shocked to see that they would be housed in one-room containers shared by 24 men, each of whom had less than a six-foot-by-six-foot space for himself and his personal belongings. The noise of workers returning from their shifts deprived those not on duty of uninterrupted sleep, and the containers had such limited bathroom access that workers had to rise long before starting work in order to wait in line. As Signal’s special projects manager said in an email obtained during the discovery process in a lawsuit filed by the SPLC, “[W]e have serious, endemic plumbing problems in the trailers. … Behind the walls, under the sinks, in the drains — everything is wrong. Pipes can be pulled apart by hand. Showers leak behind the walls, saturating sheetrock, rugs and wooden subfloors with water. Light pressure on the walls leads to them crumbling in certain places, and the wood will soon begin rotting as well.” The same manager described the camp in a journal as “a bacterial breeding ground” due to the stagnant water. For these cramped and dilapidated accommodations — and for food from a mess operation one Signal employee said would be shut down if the state health department ever inspected it — $1,050 was deducted each month from each worker’s paycheck. Signal deducted the cost of these facilities even if workers found another place to stay. In an email, Signal’s chief financial officer referred to the labor camps as “profit centers” for the company.

In addition, housing for both H-2A and H-2B workers is often located in extremely rural locations, increasing workers’ social isolation and dependence on their employer. In most instances, workers lack both vehicles and access to public transportation. As a result, they are totally dependent upon their employers for transportation to work and to places like grocery stores and banks. Some employers charge exorbitant fees for rides to the grocery store. Much of the housing provided to workers lacks telephone service, isolating workers even further. In some instances, employers have even forbidden workers from having visitors.93 These conditions not only create daily hardships for guestworkers, they increase employers’ already formidable power over them.

The living situation of Guatemalan workers recruited to work in the southeastern United States in 2012 exemplifies how employers seek to further isolate and control their workers. Approximately 85 workers were housed in a crowded, isolated house on their employer’s property. “I slept in a room with about 16 other workers,” said one worker. “There was no air conditioning in the house, and it got really hot and buggy in the summer months. The tap water smelled so foul that we couldn’t drink it. We had to spend some of the little money we made each day on bottled water.” The workers were forced to rely on their employers for transportation to the grocery store because the house was located far from the nearest town or commercial center.

To compound the workers’ isolation, their employer discouraged them from receiving visitors or from leaving the farm on their own. “After a few of the workers were picked up by family members and fled the farm, the employer got really angry and warned us that we couldn’t have any visitors,” one worker said. “He told us that he would call the police or Immigration if we did.” The employer kept close watch on the cars that approached the house and made sure that the gate blocking the road leading to the house was locked every night.

“When work on the farm dried up, I wanted to leave, but I felt trapped,” said another worker. “I didn’t have my documents or any money. And we were so far away from the town. I didn’t know where to go for help or how to get away. And the crew leader kept a close watch over us at all times. He often warned us that if we left, he would tell the employer and have us reported to Immigration right away.”

Watched By Guards

A group of about 20 guestworkers from Thailand faced a similarly desperate situation. According to a lawsuit filed on their behalf by Legal Aid of North Carolina in February 2007, they each paid $11,000 to obtain agricultural jobs. Recruiters told them, falsely, that they would have employment for three years earning $8.24 an hour.94 When they arrived in August 2005, a man acting as a labor broker confiscated their passports, visas and return airplane tickets.

Initially, they were housed in a local hotel, three men to a room. After a few weeks, the number of rooms was reduced, so that they were living five to a room. Eventually, they were moved to buildings behind the house of the labor broker, where they shared one bath. Some workers had to sleep on the floor. After a few more weeks, their employer began to reduce their food rations, leaving them hungry. Throughout their stay, the Thai workers were told they would be arrested and deported if they escaped. On several occasions, according to the lawsuit, the labor broker and his son displayed guns to the workers.

Less than two months after their arrival, some of the workers were taken to New Orleans, where they were put to work demolishing the interiors of hotels and restaurants ruined by the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. They lived in several storm-damaged hotels during their stay, including one that had no electricity or hot water and was filled with debris and mold. It had no potable water, so the workers were forced to use contaminated water for cooking.

During their stay in New Orleans, the workers were guarded by a man with a gun. They also were not paid for the work, so they had no money to buy food. Some were eventually taken back to North Carolina. The men who remained in New Orleans managed to escape with the help of local people who learned of their plight. The other workers also escaped after their return trip.

These are not isolated cases. Time and again, advocates for guestworkers hear these stories. •