A chronic problem faced by guest workers is that employers recruit too many of them and then cannot provide the number of working hours that were promised in the contract. In other instances, workers never receive a contract or are forced to sign one they do not understand.

Some employers misinform the government about the kind of work that guest workers will be doing or send them to other jobs that should be paid at higher rates, resulting in underpayment. There is virtually no federal enforcement effort to protect workers from this kind of abuse.

Guest worker ‘trapped’ in job

Cirilio* is one of about 85 workers from Guatemala who traveled to the southeastern United States in 2012 to bale pine straw and harvest blueberries. Making only about $10 to $40 a week in coffee production in Guatemala, he was eager for the opportunity to earn higher wages.  

“My wife had been sick and we needed money to pay off loans for her medical treatment,” he said. “We also hoped that this opportunity would also help bring us closer to our dream of building a house together and starting a family.”

Already deeply in debt due to his wife’s illness, Cirilio took out additional loans to pay for the $2,000 in travel, visa and recruitment expenses. When he arrived in the U.S. his employers confiscated his passport and withheld it for the duration of his employment. 

Cirilio initially worked long hours baling pine straw, often leaving the house before dawn and working until sunset. He was never reimbursed for his travel or visa expenses, and his wages were further reduced by excessive deductions. His employer deducted $200 from his pay each month for rent and transportation. He even spent about $40 to $60 of his own money per week on string used to tie bales. 

Cirilio’s situation became more desperate when he was sent to work for a blueberry grower. 

“After the first week or so, the work really slowed down,” he said. “The employer had too many workers and there was hardly anything for us to do.” 

Because guest workers are legally prohibited from seeking work elsewhere, Cirilio was at the mercy of his employer. 

“We just sat around the house day after day,” he said. “We were desperate for work, but the grower warned us that if we tried to work for anyone else, he would call Immigration and have us deported. We could hardly afford to buy food. On a few occasions, we went out into the woods to look for herbs to eat.” 

While Cirilio was in the U.S., his wife in Guatemala gave birth to their son, who died soon after birth. “Since I wasn’t making any money, I couldn’t even give him a proper funeral. I was so sad and frustrated.” 

As his wife’s health deteriorated after the loss, Cirilio told the grower that he wanted to return to Guatemala to care for her.

“He told me that I couldn’t leave because he needed me to stay on the farm and work.” 

Cirilio stayed for a little while longer, but the work did not pick up. 

“I felt trapped. My debts were mounting, but I was scared to leave the farm without my passport. I didn’t want to get deported and ruin my chances of getting another visa in the future.” 

Despite his fears, Cirilio eventually felt compelled to abandon the farm, leaving his passport behind.

“I just wanted to go back to Guatemala but I couldn’t even afford the plane ticket." 

 

* Not his real name.