Increased Reliance on “Guest Worker” Programs

By David Bacon
Americas Program

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on migrant rights by journalist and immigration activist David Bacon. This article is taken from the report “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized – Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” that examines the origins of the current migratory labor phenomenon, the mechanisms that maintain it, and proposals for a more equitable system. The Americas Program is proud to publish this series in collaboration with the author. Excerpts.

 Over the last 25 years, guest worker programs have increasingly become a vehicle for channeling the migration that has stemmed from free market reforms. Increasing numbers of guest workers are recruited each year for labor in the U.S. from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean under the H1-B, H2-A and H2-B programs. Recruiters promise high wages and charge thousands of dollars for visas, fees and transportation. By the time they leave home, the debts of guest workers are crushing.

..In 2006 Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, was murdered when the union tried to set up an office in Mexico to end the corruption and abuse by guest worker contractors.

If workers protest their  treatment, they’re put on a blacklist and won’t be hired the following year. Protesting wouldn’t do much good anyway. Prior to the current administration, the U.S. Department of Labor almost never decertified a guest worker contractor, no matter how many complaints were filed against it. The paper industry depends on this system. Twenty years ago, it stopped hiring unemployed workers domestically, and began recruiting guest workers. As a result, labor costs in the forests have remained flat, while paper profits have gone up.

U.S. guest worker programs in general are just one part of a much larger, global system, which produces labor and then puts it to use. In Latin America, economic reforms promoted by the U.S. government through trade agreements and international financial institutions displace workers, from miners to coffee pickers. They then join a huge flood of labor moving north. When they arrive in the U.S., they become an indispensable part of the workforce, whether they are undocumented or laboring under work visas. Displacement creates a mobile workforce, an army of available workers that has become an indispensable part of the U.S. economy, and that of wealthy countries like it. The same system that produces migration needs and uses that labor.

Today displacement and inequality are as deeply ingrained in the free market economy as they were during the slave trade. Mexican President Felipe Calderon said during a 2008 visit to California, “You have two economies. One economy is intensive in capital, which is the American economy. One economy is intensive in labor, which is the Mexican economy. We are two complementary economies, and that phenomenon is impossible to stop.” When Calderon says intensive in labor, he means that millions of Mexican citizens are being displaced, and that the country’s economy can’t produce employment for them. To Calderon and employers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, migration is therefore a labor supply system.

Labor Programs and Greater Enforcement – The Corporate Agenda on Immigration

The meatpacking industry started lobbying for guest workers in the late 1990s, when companies organized the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition – corporations like Wal-Mart, Marriott, Tyson Foods and the Associated Builders and Contractors. While Republicans are strong guest worker supporters, the proposals in Congress are bipartisan, supported by liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

New guest worker programs are the heart of the corporate program for immigration reform, and are combined with proposals for increased enforcement and a pro-employer program for legalization of the undocumented. Guest worker proposals, advanced now even at the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, have two characteristics. They allow employers to recruit labor in one country and put it to use in another, and they tie the ability of workers to stay in their new country to their employment status. If they aren’t working, they have no right to stay. These inevitably lead to a different social, political and economic status, in which workers don’t have the same rights as those around them, and can’t receive the same social benefits.

David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He has been a reporter and documentary photographer for 18 years, shooting for many national publications. He has exhibited his work nationally, and in Mexico, the UK and Germany. Bacon covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics and is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a regular contributor to the Americas Program.


The report “Displaced, Unequal and Criminalized – Fighting for the Rights of Migrants in the United States” was prepared for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.


See the entire series here.

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