SPLC calls on Congress to use immigration reform to end systemic abuses of low-skill workers

As the U.S. Senate deliberates Senate Bill 744 to reform the nation's immigration policies, the SPLC today unveiled an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of how U.S. companies are exploiting foreign guest workers. Advocates, researchers, policymakers and journalists can now access the Campaign for Guest Worker Justice online resource center for data, video, court cases and reports documenting the abuses faced by these workers.

Since 2004, the SPLC has represented thousands of guest workers in the United States whose lives have been devastated by unscrupulous employers. These workers have few options to hold employers accountable. The SPLC documented the abusive nature of the H-2 federal guest worker program for low-skill workers in its report Close to Slavery. Despite a handful of modest reforms by the federal government in the past four years, the rampant exploitation of guest workers continues.

"Lawmakers should seize this opportunity to end the second-class treatment of guest workers,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC senior staff attorney. “Any new worker programs must offer sufficient protections and stronger enforcement provisions that allow workers to hold abusive employers accountable. It also must end incentives for foreign labor recruiters to gouge these hard-working men and women with excessive recruiting fees that leave them deeply in debt and more vulnerable to exploitation.”  

To protect guest workers and ensure that the guest worker program does not create unfair competition for U.S. workers, federal legislation should:

Ensure 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 S. 744, workers with general, non-agricultural W, H-2B and RPI visas are denied access to the legal services dedicated to the poor, such as the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). All low-wage workers, including guest workers, should be eligible for LSC-funded legal assistance to protect their basic rights.

Provide a private right of action to enforce worker protections

S. 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. A right without a remedy is like having no right at all, however. The current bill does not provide guest workers with access to federal court to enforce these protections. A private federal right of action guarantees guest workers the opportunity to recover wages and hold employers accountable for abuse, discrimination and retaliation without clogging state courts.

Regulate 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. 

Provide a path to permanency for guest workers

S. 744 grants a path to citizenship to all W visa workers. Congress must preserve this path and extend it to H-2B guest workers. 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.