Discrimination based on national origin, race, age, disability and gender is deeply entrenched in the H-2 guestworker system.

It often begins even before guestworkers are hired and is intended to ensure that U.S. workers are effectively locked out of the job.

Employers may bring in guestworkers only if U.S. workers are unavailable.77 As a result, the DOL requires employers to make an effort to recruit U.S. workers before it will approve their application for guestworkers. But because many H-2 employers simply prefer vulnerable foreign workers over domestic workers, employers often engage in discriminatory tactics to weed out U.S. workers.

For example, during an investigation into illegal or fraudulent activities within the H-2B visa program, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that some employers “preferentially hired H-2B employees over American workers in violation of federal law.” Undercover investigators captured recruiters suggesting tactics that employers could use to discourage U.S. applicants, such as requiring them to demonstrate their ability to run around carrying a 50-pound bag, scheduling interviews before 7 a.m., and requiring drug testing prior to interviews.78

One recent case against a large agricultural grower further illustrates how employers discriminate against U.S. workers. After receiving complaints from dozens of U.S. farmworkers, the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEOC) filed charges against the agricultural company Hamilton Growers, Inc. (d/b/a Southern Valley Fruit and Vegetable, Inc.) in 2011 alleging that the grower discriminated against more than 600 U.S. workers based on race and national origin. Over the course of three years, the grower fired virtually all of its U.S. employees while continuing to bring in Mexican H-2A workers. The EEOC alleged that the termination of at least 16 African Americans “was coupled with race-based comments by a management official.” The grower also subjected U.S. workers to disparate working terms and conditions, giving them fewer hours or denying them work when guestworkers were allowed to continue working. Upon reaching a settlement in December 2012, U.S. workers succeeded in recovering $500,000 in back wages and damages.79

Employers also routinely engage in discriminatory practices when it comes to hiring guestworkers. In fact, one federal appellate court has placed its stamp of approval upon such discrimination. In Reyes-Gaona v. NCGA,80 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that even explicit age discrimination in hiring H-2A workers was not unlawful. In that case, there was little dispute that the recruiter, Del-Al Associates, which recruited thousands of guestworkers to the United States, told Luis Reyes-Gaona, who applied in Mexico to be an H-2A worker in North Carolina, that it was the policy of the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), for whom Del Al was recruiting, that NCGA would not accept new employees over the age of 40. The court found that because this choice had occurred outside the territory of the United States, it was not actionable under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Although it is possible that other courts will reach a different conclusion on this issue, there is little doubt that such discrimination is pervasive.81 Indeed, the ability to choose the exact characteristics of a worker (male, age 25-40, Mexican, etc.) is one of the very factors that make guestworker programs attractive to employers.

Marcela Olvera-Morales is a Mexican woman who worked as a guestworker in 1999 and 2002. In 2002, the EEOC issued a determination finding reasonable cause to believe that she faced unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender. She alleged that a recruiter – the International Labor Management Corp. (ILMC), which places thousands of guestworkers in U.S. jobs – systematically placed women in H-2B jobs while placing men in H-2A jobs, which provide better pay and benefits. Statistical data showed that the likelihood the gender-based difference in the granting of visas was due to chance was less than one in 10,000.82 As part of a 2009 settlement, the ILMC was required to engage in affirmative steps, including ongoing monitoring by the plaintiffs, to ensure that guestworkers who the ILMC placed were not subjected to gender discrimination.

Once in the workplace, it is not uncommon for guestworkers to be subjected to discrimination and harassment.

In 2006, welders and pipefitters coming from India on H-2B visas arrived on the Gulf Coast to work for Signal International, a marine industrial construction company. Although Signal employed hundreds of non-citizen workers, it required only the Indian workers to live on Signal property in cramped and guarded trailers that other Signal employees and Signal management called “the Reservation.” This segregated workforce created an environment in which non-Indian employees felt comfortable referring to the Indian workers as animals or by means of profane language. When the Indian workers requested better treatment, Signal fired those workers it perceived to be leaders of the effort to seek fair and dignified treatment. 

Through the SPLC, the H-2B workers filed complaints with the EEOC charging discrimination on the basis of race and/or national origin. Finding reasonable cause to believe that Signal discriminated and retaliated against the Indian workers on behalf of their race and/or national origin, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Signal to seek compensation for the workers and to ensure Signal’s compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws.83 

Sexual Harassment

Women are particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Numerous women have reported concerns about severe sexual harassment on the job. There have been no studies that quantify this problem among guestworkers. However, in a 1993 survey of farmworker women in California, more than 90% reported that sexual harassment was a major problem on the job.84

In 1995, EEOC representatives met with farmworkers in Fresno, Calif., as part of an effort to develop a more vigorous enforcement program in the agricultural industry. William R. Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC in San Francisco, said, “We were told that hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.”85 The farmworkers, in fact, referred to one company’s field as the “fil de calzon,” or “field of panties,” because so many women had been raped by supervisors there.86

More recently, a study published in 2010 found that among 150 Mexican women and women of Mexican descent who were working the fields of California’s Central Valley, 80%  said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.87 That same year, the SPLC conducted in-depth interviews with approximately 150 immigrant women working in the U.S. food industry who were either undocumented or had spent time in the United States as undocumented workers. Virtually all of the women said sexual harassment was a serious problem, and a majority had personally experienced some form of it while working in the fields, packinghouses or processing plants. “Many, however, were not even familiar with the concept,” the SPLC report, Injustice on Our Plates, says, “As less acculturated immigrant women, they struggled to understand the notion of sexual harassment, let alone grasp the means and methods of reporting an incident. Indeed, many were not aware of their rights and seemed to regard incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence as yet another unpleasant aspect of their job that they had no choice but to endure.” The report told the story of one Mexican women who was brutally raped by a supervisor after her shift at a meatpacking plant but refused to report the attack to police because of her fear of both the police and the rapist. Her complaint to the company was met with indifference.88

Given the acute vulnerability of guestworkers in general, one can extrapolate that women guestworkers are extraordinarily defenseless in the face of sexual harassment. Indeed, given the power imbalance between employers and their guestworkers, it is hard to imagine how a guestworker facing harassment on the job could alleviate her situation. Assuming that she, like most workers, had taken out substantial debt to obtain the job and given that she would not be permitted to work for any employer other than the offender, her options would be severely limited.

Martina*, a guestworker from Mexico, has first-hand experience with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. She came to the United States with an H-2B visa to process crabs. She knew from past work that men always process oysters and women always process crabs. And the men are paid higher wages than the women. One year Martina was brought in to work during oyster season. When she arrived at the airport, she was met by the plant manager who made it clear that she had been hired to be his mistress. The DOL has approved H-2B visas for this plant for years.89

It is no coincidence that these forms of discrimination exist in guestworker programs; many of the recruiting agencies tout the great benefits of hiring workers from one country or another.

Employers can even shop for guestworkers over the Internet at websites such as www.labormex.com, www.maslabor.com, www.mexicanworkers.biz, or www.mexican-workers.com. One website advertises its Mexican recruits like human commodities, touting Mexican guestworkers as people with “a good old fashioned work ethic” who are “very friendly and easy to work with.”90

When employers are permitted to shop for workers as though they were ordering from a catalog, discrimination is the likely, perhaps inevitable result.