Guest worker programs and legal slavery in America
By Briana Kerensky
We always hear about illegal immigrants who fight to get into the U.S. for their slice of sweet American pie, but end up working dangerous jobs in industries like agriculture and food processing. And they can’t do anything about it without risking a one-way ticket back home.
But it’s not only illegal immigrants who are trapped in this cycle. Guest worker programs are a legal way for employers to become taskmasters and foreign laborers to be their slaves.
There are two programs currently run by the U.S. government to import hundreds of thousands of unskilled laborers. H-2A hires people for agricultural work, and H-2B hires people for non-farming tasks such as seafood processing and hotel maintenance. According to regulations, the programs can only distribute visas that are good for one year (sheep herders are the exception: they get three years). In the case of agricultural work, that can be cut to just one season.
Unfortunately, many of the people recruited to be H-2 workers, who are often from poorer areas such as Guatemala and India, are not told that their chance to make it in America has an expiration date.
Many recruiters are hired by corporations (such as hotels and food processors) and go to different nations to find laborers, lie about the time limit, and unnecessarily charge them thousands of dollars. But earning minimum wage, and having portions of that wage deducted for extraneous fees such as travel and housing (which employers are supposed to provide), leaves many workers in serious debt.
Daniel Castellanos paid $500 to travel from Lima, Peru to New Orleans as a guest worker in 2006. Originally told by a recruiter that he would be working in construction for $15 an hour for 60 hours a week, Castellanos was instead forced to do menial tasks at luxury hotels for below minimum wage. Today, Castellanos helps run the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, a branch of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
“All the recruitment they sell you is a dream,” Castellanos said. “I had to pay housing and food, and it’s super expensive. My wife and children, I had to send money to them to live in Peru and I didn’t have opportunity to do that because they only paid me cheap labor wages.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit organization that deals with immigration and social justice in the United States. Booth Gutner, an editor of the organization’s 2007 report “Close to Slavery,” said that middlemen hired by the corporations needing unskilled laborers often lie to potential workers without any government retribution. One company that the Center is trying to bring to justice right now is Signal, which works with offshore oil on the Gulf Coast.
“They recruited hundreds of Indian workers, and literally told them that they would be getting permanent residency,” Gutner said. “The workers paid $15,000 to $20,000 each, just to find out that there’s no residency and they can only be here for a year. They were forced to live in labor camps, and were forced to pay $1,000 to live in these labor camps.”
These recruiters are not people you want to mess with.
“I interviewed people who recruited workers from Guatemala to work in forests here,” said journalist David Bacon. “These recruiters were people who had been paramilitary in Guatemala. In other words, people who organized death squads. They’re scary people.”
According to “Close to Slavery,” people brought into the guest worker program are the property of their employers. Unlike U.S. citizens, who have the ability to change jobs whenever they want, guest workers are bound to one boss. Employees are routinely cheated out of wages, denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries, forced to live in squalid conditions, and are denied access to their legal documents.
While the government requires, on paper, provisions for workers’ rights in H2 programs, obviously none of them have been exercised. With the extremely low pay and extraneous recruiting and housing fees, the laborers cannot afford any legal services. Their employers also often tell them that if they don’t like the working conditions, they can just be deported and go home. But home is where the debt is.
In the past few years, various congressional leaders have proposed changes to the guest worker program. Unfortunately, many of them involve expansion rather than reformation. Castellanos’ organization is trying to come up with a solution that would end the slavery cycle. For the past four years he has been recruiting other former guest workers, and has given presentations in Congress and the United Nations on the subject. All with minimal outside help.
“They thought that we can’t speak by ourselves,” he said. “Every time they think we need to talk with lawyers. But we don’t want anyone to talk on our behalf. We lived the problems and we know the solutions. We are the experts of the program. We have the solutions.”
Briana Kerensky is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at [email protected]