Creating a Level Playing Field for Guest Workers

Several plans to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, including Senate Bill 744, contain important protections for U.S. and foreign workers that must be preserved as the legislation moves through Congress. But they lack critical protections to prevent foreign workers from enduring the kind of exploitation prevalent in the current H-2 guest worker program.

Meaningful reform must include these protections:

Access to justice

Immigration reform should not slam the courthouse door in the face of guest workers. This means having a lawyer’s help if your boss won’t pay you for all the hours you worked. But under SB 744, only workers in select categories will have access to programs dedicated to providing legal services to the poor, such as the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Workers with general, non-agricultural W, H-2B and RPI visas* will be denied access to LSC-funded services. All low-wage workers, including guest workers, should be eligible for legal assistance from LSC-funded services to protect their basic rights.

Private right of action to enforce worker protections

SB 744 has important protections for domestic and foreign workers in the H-2B and W visa programs, including a right to the prevailing wage as well as anti-retaliation and discrimination provisions. It also grants U.S. workers the right to not be displaced by a foreign worker. 

But a right without a remedy is like having no right at all. The current bill does not provide guest workers with access to federal court to enforce these protections. This means the bill’s protections exist only on paper. A private right of action guarantees guest workers the opportunity to recover wages and hold employers accountable for abuse, discrimination and retaliation.

Regulation of foreign labor recruiters

It is essential that the bill’s provisions regulating foreign labor recruiters remain intact. The bill must also provide workers a private right of action in federal court that will allow them to hold employers liable when they benefit from abusive recruitment practices.

U.S. employers often rely on individuals or agencies to recruit guest workers abroad. These labor recruiters typically charge exorbitant fees that force guest workers into debt, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation that frequently rises to the level of human trafficking. Regulation and a private right of action can curtail this abuse. 

Path to permanency for guest workers

SB 744 grants a path to citizenship to all W visa workers and H-2B guest workers. Congress must preserve this path. All guest workers should have an opportunity to apply for permanency in the United States and a path to citizenship. The path to permanency and citizenship must be broad and fair – reflecting the American value that those who contribute to this nation’s success are equal members of our society.

* Under proposed legislation, W visas would be granted to 20,000 to 200,000 year-round workers. RPI (Registered Provisional Immigrant) visas would be granted to the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the county. H-2B are currently granted to non-agricultural, low-skill foreign workers on a seasonal basis.