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The 21st-Century Version of Slavery Is Widespread In America

The abuses of the H-2B visa program are mind-boggling.

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A 21st-century version of slavery—captive labor—is rampant at the bottom of the U.S. economy, and Washington politicians and business lobbies want to keep it that way, or even expand it as part of the immigration reform talks now in Congress.

Under a system of “legalized slavery,” foreign workers are routinely thrown in massive debt, cheated out of wages, housed in squalid shacks, held captive by brokers and businesses that seize passports, Social Security cards and return tickets, denied healthcare, rented to other employers (including the military), and sexually harassed and threatened with firing and deportation if they complain, according to two detailed reports by the  Southern Poverty Law Center and the  National Guestworker Alliance. The reports are based on sworn testimony gathered for lawsuits.

The H-2B visa program that brought 83,000 foreign guestworkers to the U.S. in 2011 for non-farm work has become a stalking ground for some of the worst abuses in American capitalism, according to recent reports by anti-poverty law groups. These reports describe in excruciating detail how predatory capitalists in many manual labor-based industries (supplying national brands like Walmart) lure and prey upon foreigners whose jobs average less than $10 an hour with little regard for human rights, labor law or legal consequence.

“We called it modern-day slavery,” said Daniel Contreras, who borrowed $3,000 to come from Peru and whose story is told in the Guestworker Alliance report. He was one of 300 foreigners brought to New Orleans by a hotel chain after Hurricane Katrina. “Instead of hiring workers from the displaced and jobless African-American community, he sent recruiters to hire us. At around $6 an hour, we were cheaper. As temporary workers, we were more exploitable. We were hostage to debt in our home countries. We were terrified of deporation. And we were bound to [owner Patrick] Quinn and could not work for anyone else. We were Patrick Quinn’s captive workforce.”  

“I was so devastated by our situation. I wanted to go home but couldn’t because I had no money,” said Julia, who paid $1,500 to come to the U.S. in 2009 from Jamacia to work as a housekeeper in Florida. “After nearly one month of working 40 hours or more a week cleaning hotel rooms, Julia and her coworkers had not received a single paycheck,” SPLC reported. Julia said, “I came to the United States to work and so I could help my family and save to go back to school. I had never been treated so badly before, and I felt like there was nothing I could do about it.”

Under the H-2B visa program, the foreigners are trapped. They’re not allowed to work for anyone else. “Unlike U.S. citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive job market—the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated,” SPLC said. “They are bound to the employers who 'import' them. If guestworkers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.”

“When the supervisor would see that a person was ready to leave the job because the pay was so bad, he would take our papers from us,” Otto Rafael Boton-Gonzalez, a forestry worker from Guatemala told the SPLC. “He would rip up our visa and say, ‘You don’t want to work? Get out of here then. You don’t want to work? Right now I will call immigration to take your papers and deport you.’”

These experiences are the tip of an economic iceberg that exists in many states and industries. The abused H-2B guestworkers in the report include housekeepers and desk clerks in hotels along the Gulf of Mexico, welders and pipefitters in Gulf shipyards, strawberry and sugar cane harvesters, environmental cleanup workers, garden and forest workers and even carnival employees.