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Guestworker Programs Blend "Free Markets" and Forced Labor for Migrant Workers

Far from offering a more regulated alternative to undocumented migrant labor, guestworker programs encourage the same abuses that “illegal” workers suffer.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

The debate around immigration in Washington brings the same smoke and mirrors each election cycle: anti-immigrant slogans about “securing the border” flashing alongside craftily worded policies to sustain the flow of cheap labor, legal or not. Politicians seem to want it both ways: keeping immigrants locked into a brutal underground workforce, while using mass deportation and constant abuse to exclude them from society.

One popular "compromise" policy on immigration, the “guestworker model,” perfectly weds the ideas of “free markets” and forced labor. For many years, special visa programs have allowed employers to  hire temporary foreign labor at paltry wages with minimal oversight. It would be the ultimate captive labor force, except a few things get in the way--mainly that even these workers have some rights under the law, plus indentured servitude looks terribly out-of-date these days, even with Washington's stamp of approval.

In recent months, young workers channeled into Hershey factory jobs under the J-1 visa “student exchange” program have  protested against cruel, coercive working conditions.  Advocates have also called attention to exploited workers under the  H2-B program, which places tens of thousands of temporary workers in trades like hotel services and landscaping. For years, various investigations and lawsuits have exposed  systematic abuses of seasonal farmworkers in the H2-A program, who toil in conditions often akin to slavery.

The federal government has made some small steps toward addressing guestworker exploitation . As we've  reported beforereforms to the J-1 program are apparently underway to rein in the abuse and trafficking of youth.

New revisions to the H2-B rules would tighten oversight of bosses to prevent them from skirting wage and hour laws and from retaliating against workers who file complaints. Employers would also have disclose the use of foreign recruitment services, which are known around the world for facilitating debt bondage and human trafficking networks.

Daniel Castellanos, an activist with New Orleans-based  National Guestworker Alliance, said in a statement, “For too long, guestworkers have been lured to the U.S. with false promises of an American Dream, and instead faced deep debt and exploitation... Because these rules contain real worker protections and expand our right to organize, we can win fair wages and working conditions for all workers.”

Castellanos arrived in New Orleans from Peru in 2005, hoping to aid with the post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. Soon he and hundreds of other imported workers  found themselves stuck in menial hotel jobs and sinking deeper into debt as the promised wages never materialized. Post-Katrina recovery efforts were replete with such labor abuses. Hundreds of guestworkers from India faced a similar crisis; according to a  lawsuit against the marine industry firm Signal International, they were trafficked into the U.S., held under brutal conditions in “overcrowded labor camps,” and cheated out of their pay.

While Labor Department's new measures might help prevent some abuses, they skirt the heart of the problem: Far from offering a more regulated alternative to undocumented migrant labor, guestworker programs (which have  been the model for mainstream immigration reform proposals) encourage the same abuses that “illegal” workers suffer. The end result is an inherently unequal tiered workforce, abetted by anemic regulatory regimes and a web of subcontractors that dodge the law. Though this pattern undermines both citizen and immigrant workers, too often the crisis is goads immigrant bashing rather than condemnation of unscrupulous companies.

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