Under the nation’s H-2 guest worker program, U.S. employers recruit more than 200,000 foreign workers each year to perform temporary, low-skill labor in farming, forestry, seafood-processing, landscaping, tourism, construction and other labor-intensive industries.
The workers, mostly from Latin America, are typically living in poverty in their home countries and desperate for work. But far from being treated like “guests” in the United States, they’re systematically exploited and abused by labor recruiters and employers.
Unlike U.S. citizens, they do not enjoy even the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market – the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they’re bound to the employers who “import” them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, the loss of their investment, blacklisting or other retaliation.
Employers hold all the cards. To obtain their jobs, guest workers frequently must pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous labor recruiters, leaving them deeply in debt and vulnerable to abuse. Many are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to live in squalid conditions, subjected to labor trafficking, denied proper medical care or compensation for injuries, or held virtually captive by employers and labor brokers who confiscate their visas and identity documents. Meanwhile, the federal government has utterly failed to uphold their rights.
Guest workers have been compared to modern-day indentured servants. But unlike the 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. They are, in effect, the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.
Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel called the program it “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
U.S. workers also suffer as a result of these flaws in the guest worker system. As long as employers in low-wage industries can rely on an endless stream of vulnerable guest workers who lack basic labor protections, they will have little incentive to hire U.S. workers or make jobs more appealing by improving wages and working conditions. It’s been well-documented that wages for U.S. workers are depressed in industries that rely heavily on guest workers.
We’re committed to winning justice for exploited workers. We’ve recovered tens of millions in wages for cheated workers and made substantial progress toward reforming this system by filing strategic lawsuits against abusive employers and advocating for regulatory and statutory change.