Guest workers typically arrive in the U.S. deeply in debt because they must borrow money, often at high interest rates, to pay recruiting fees to individuals or agencies retained by U.S. employers seeking foreign labor. These fees can range from as low as $500 to well over $10,000, even for temporary jobs that pay little.
In one SPLC case, a recruiter testified that some workers paid as much as $18,000 each to work at a Gulf Coast shipyard. Already in debt, guest workers find themselves highly vulnerable to exploitation, because they fear that any complaint or misstep can mean the loss of their job and financial ruin.
Recruitment fees leave guest worker vulnerable
Starting in 2003, the Arkansas-based company Candy Brand brought in hundreds of Mexican H-2A workers each year to harvest and pack tomatoes. Many of the workers were from Michoacán, Mexico.
In Michoacán, a powerful, local family controlled the recruitment of Candy Brand workers. According to workers’ testimonies, the recruiters routinely charged them between $275 and $375 in fees just to have their names placed on a list of eligible workers.
Workers from the Mexican state of Tabasco were not only required to pay a similar fee by their local recruiter but were further extorted by one of the Michoacán recruiters. This recruiter met the workers in Monterrey after their visas were issued and demanded that they pay him an additional $1,000 – just to have their visas and passports returned to them.
“He held my passport up in the air and threatened to cut it if I didn’t pay him,” said Juan Pablo Asencio Vasquez, a worker from Tabasco. “I didn’t have all of the money he asked for but he gave me back my passport on the condition I would pay the rest of the money to his son in the United States after I started working for Candy Brand. The recruiters threatened to kill my wife and children in Mexico if I didn’t pay.”
Reluctant to forgo the money they had already spent for the opportunity to work in the U.S., the workers felt they had no other option but to pay these fraudulent and illegal fees.
Many workers arrived in Arkansas deeply in debt.
On top of that, their U.S. employer failed to reimburse the workers for their travel and visa expenses and did not pay them overtime or the applicable wage in accordance with the law. With limited economic opportunities in their hometowns in Mexico, many workers knew that they were being cheated by the company year after year but felt they had few other viable options for making a living.