As part of immigration reform efforts, Congress is considering the creation of a new guest worker system for low-wage, low-skill workers.

What is often ignored in this debate is that we already have such a program, one that brings in more than 100,000 workers each year. It’s called the H-2 program and is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Far from being treated like “guests,” these foreign workers are systematically exploited and abused.

Without access to legal resources, guest workers are routinely:

  • Cheated out of wages;
  • Forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs;
  • Held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents;
  • Subjected to human trafficking and debt servitude;
  • Forced to live in squalid conditions; and
  • Denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

 

Guest worker Blas Burboa Leyva of Michoacan, Mexico: "We didn't complain because we were afraid of the company. Really, you're afraid. You signed a contract; you have to fulfill it, right? That's what the law requires."

 Trapped and disposable

Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, like the indentured servants of a bygone era, they are bound to the employers who “import” them.

Unlike the European indentured servants of old, today’s guest workers have no prospect of becoming U.S. citizens. When their temporary work visas expire, they must leave the United States. If they are injured, they have little prospect of receiving ongoing medical benefits.

Abuse is widespread

The abuses in the program – documented in numerous lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocates – are too common to blame on a few “bad apple” employers. They are, rather, the foreseeable outcomes of a system that treats foreign workers as commodities to be imported as needed without affording them adequate legal safeguards, the protections of the free market, or the opportunity to become full members of society.

The H-2 program is bad for U.S. workers

As long as employers in low-wage industries can rely on an endless stream of vulnerable guest workers who lack basic labor protections, they have little incentive to hire U.S. workers or make jobs more appealing to domestic workers by improving wages and working conditions. Not surprisingly, despite requirements to recruit domestically, discrimination against U.S. workers by H-2 employers is well-documented, as is the depression of U.S. worker wages in industries that rely heavily on guest workers. The net effect is a downward spiral in wages and working conditions.