Guest workers: a worn-out labor idea

JOHN J. SWEENEY is president of the AFL-CIO. PABLO ALVARADO is executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

CORPORATE America has made an expanded guest worker program the cornerstone of its preferred brand of immigration reform, and no wonder: It will assure a steady flow of cheap labor from essentially indentured workers too afraid of being deported to protest substandard wages, chiseled benefits and unsafe working conditions.

Such a system will create a disenfranchised underclass of workers. That is not only morally indefensible, it is economically nonsensical. We’ve had plenty of bad experiences with such shortsighted answers to a complicated problem.

The notorious bracero program all but enslaved immigrant agricultural and railroad workers in the years after World War II. Today we have H-2A and H-2B visa programs to remind us that “temporary” immigration employment models rest on a faulty foundation.

The H-2 programs bring in agricultural and other seasonal workers to pick crops, do construction and work in the seafood industry, among other jobs. Workers typically borrow large amounts of money to pay travel expenses, fees and sometimes bribes to recruiters. That means that before they even begin to work, they are indebted. They leave their families at home, and they are essentially “bound” to employers who can send them home on a whim and who do not have to prove a need to hire them in the first place.

According to a new study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is not unusual for a Guatemalan worker to pay more than $2,500 in fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position, about a year’s worth of income in Guatemala. And Thai workers have been known to pay as much as $10,000 for the chance to harvest crops in the orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Interest rates on the loans are sometimes as high as 20% a month. Homes and vehicles are required collateral. Handcuffed by their debt, the “guests” are forced to remain and work for employers even when their pay and working conditions are second-rate, hazardous or abusive. Hungry children inevitably checkmate protest.

Technically, these programs include some legal protections, but in reality, those protections exist mostly on paper. Government enforcement is almost nonexistent. Private attorneys refuse to take cases. And guest workers, especially the poorest, the least educated and those with the least English, end up with no choice but to put their heads down and toil, innocently undermining employment standards for all U.S. workers in the process.

This doesn’t mean that there is no solution to the immigration crisis or no good way to deal with workers and families who will want to come — and who we will need to come — to the United States to work.

In 1997, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform validated our belief that a “properly regulated system of permanent admissions serves the national interest” and warned that another temporary-worker program would be a “grievous mistake.” This means that everyone who is admitted to work must immediately be on a track toward permanent residency or citizenship.

Yes, employers who can prove that they tried and failed to find U.S. workers should be able to hire foreign workers. But no, they shouldn’t be able to bring them in under abusive conditions that have a negative effect on the wages and working conditions of other workers.

Yes, we should have caps set to limit the number of employment-based visas issued each year. But no, they should not be determined, as the H-2 quotas are now, by political compromise or industry lobbying. The number of employment-based visas should be set each year by the Department of Labor based on macro-economic indicators that establish the needs of particular industries.

Employers should not be allowed to recruit abroad, a practice that invites bribes, exorbitant fees and potential abuse. Instead, employers should be required to hire from applications filed by workers in their home countries through a computerized job bank.

Foreign workers should enjoy the same rights and protections as U.S. workers, including freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life. Labor laws must protect all workers, regardless of immigration status. If we leave undocumented workers without any real way to enforce labor laws, as our laws do now, we are feeding employers’ hunger for more and more exploitable workers, relegating them to second-class status. That hurts all workers.

Scholars have long recognized that the genius of U.S. immigration policy throughout our history has been the opportunity afforded to immigrants for full membership in society. That is the solid foundation on which a morally and economically sound policy can be built, and it is the foundation we are working together to build.