Temporary worker programs in the United States are often presented as a “win-win” process, by which employers and foreign workers come together to both fill industry shortages and meet the needs of immigrant workers on a seasonal basis. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people are recruited from abroad to work on a vast array of temporary visas, in a wide range of industries, from low-wage jobs in agriculture and landscaping, to higher-wage jobs in technology, nursing and teaching. Yet, few discuss how these workers come to the United States and under what terms. Regardless of their visa, internationally recruited workers face disturbingly common patterns of abuse, including fraud, discrimination, economic coercion, blacklisting and, in some cases, forced labor, debt bondage and human trafficking.
The International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG), a diverse coalition that includes the AFL-CIO, AFT, the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc. (CDM), Farmworker Justice, Global Workers Justice Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, Southern Poverty Law Center and other international and national organizations, met on February 5 to launch a report highlighting abuses experienced by internationally recruited workers. Directly before the House Judiciary Committee’s first immigration hearing and fresh on the heels of President Obama’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, the group called for lawmakers to implement meaningful regulation of recruitment practices as part of a legislative package.
The report, The American Dream Up for Sale: A Blueprint for Ending International Labor Recruitment Abuse, identifies the shortcomings and gaps in the current regulatory and enforcement framework governing international worker programs and calls on lawmaker to implement the group’s proposed reforms in upcoming legislation.
“Abuse is rampant under the current international worker programs and visa categories,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of CDM. “Congress can no longer pretend that the problems are limited to certain work programs or visa types.”
Indeed, the structures of the temporary work visa system, itself, perpetuate and encourage abuse. Workers often come to the United States after taking out enormous debt, up to $20,000 in some cases, to pay recruiter fees and are prohibited by most visa regulations from changing employers. According to Leonardo, who came to the United States on an H-2B visa to work in the traveling fair industry, he and others like him are misled into believing they can earn a relative “fortune” through temporary work after investing in the recruitment process—in the end, Leonardo earned only $3 an hour and found his conditions so unsatisfactory he returned early to Mexico. The reality is, as Leonardo found, temporary workers are many times placed in unsanitary and isolated housing, are docked pay for living expenses and work in dangerous conditions with no safety equipment.
To prevent this kind of recruitment and workplace abuse, the group forwarded eight core principles: Freedom from discrimination and retaliation, a workers’ right to know their protections under each visa category, freedom from economic coercion, the right to receive a contract, employer accountability for recruiter abuses, freedom of movement, freedom of association, collective bargaining and access to justice.
“Freedom of association,” said Ingrid, a Filipina teacher brought to Louisiana on an H-1B visa, “is critically important for recruited workers.” Now a member of AFT, Ingrid found that it was only after the union became involved was she able to effectively fight back against her abusive recruiter, a convicted felon who charged excessive fees, forced teachers to pay for overpriced housing and threatened anyone who complained.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said:
Today’s report makes clear that such abuses are not isolated incidents—they permeate the system. The AFT and others in this coalition have outlined a set of core principles for the kind of treatment that any worker in our nation should be able to expect. Ideals such as freedom from discrimination or coercion, access to justice and information, and freedom of movement and association are not reserved for citizens alone. They are universal values for which our country stands, and they must apply to any worker on our soil.
Ana Avendaño, assistant to the president for Immigration and Community Action at the AFL-CIO, praised the report as shedding light on a “missing part of the story: how do workers get here?” As the ILRWG makes clear, it is too often under exploitative conditions. Guest worker programs do little to protect workers, both immigrant and U.S. born, and to not reflect our best values as a democratic society. Lawmakers need to take heed of the group’s blueprint for reform.
For more, see: http://fairlaborrecruitment.wordpress.com/.
This report first appeared on the AFL-CIO NOW blog.