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LABOUR-US: Many “Guest Workers” Treated Like Chattel

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2007 (IPS) - So-called “guest workers” in the United States are routinely forced to handover the deeds to their homes to recruiters, cheated out of wages, held captive by employers who seize their passports and visas, and denied basic standards of living conditions and health care, according to report released Monday in Washington.

The report, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programmes in the United States,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says that the H-2 guest worker visa, administered by the U.S. Department of Labour, has created a system ripe for exploitation of immigrant workers both in their home countries and in the United States.

“Congress should reform our broken immigration system, but reform should not rely on creating a vast new guest worker programme,” Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project and author of the report, said in a press release. “The current program is shamefully abusive in practice, and there is almost no enforcement of worker rights.”

The 48-page report details the abuse of guest workers in the H-2 system, a programme created in 1943 to allow the sugar cane industry to bring in temporary workers but that was revised by Congress in 1986 to include non-agricultural industries.

In 2005, 121,000 temporary H-2 guest workers – 32,000 H-2A workers for agricultural labour and 89,000 H-2B workers for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries – were “imported” by U.S. employers.

The exploitation for these workers begins in their home countries when they respond to advertisements for labourers claiming generous pay and eventual residency in the United States.

These private agencies then require payment from the workers – sometimes in the thousands of dollars – often financed by a loan shark at interest rates as high as 20 percent per month.

Recruiting agencies also sometimes require workers to leave collateral, in the form of deeds to their houses or cars, to ensure they fulfill the term of their contracts.

Once guest workers receive their H-2 visas and arrive in the U.S. deeply in debt, it is common for them to find out that the wages promised to them are false – for example, many workers in the pine tree planting industry earn less than 1,000 dollars per month, says the report.

Abuse of guest workers in the U.S. often stems from the fact that employers have seized their passports and social security cards – documents crucial to their case if they are faced with deportation.

Workers claim that the documents are taken to prevent guest workers from leaving in the middle of their contracts.

The SPLC has also documented cases where employers have refused to return or destroyed passports in order to convert workers to undocumented status.

If undocumented, workers receive little assistance from law enforcement officials and have few legal safeguards to prevent them from being deported if their employer reports them to the authorities.

The power held over migrant workers allows employers to renege on promises and pay workers at lower wages and for fewer hours than they actually work, says the report.

Workers who do speak out about mistreatment and abuse are often threatened with deportation or physical violence in a “campaign of intimidation” against workers who bring claims of unlawful treatment.

Violence often faces those who take legal action against the abuses they face by their H-2 visa sponsors in the United States.

One guest worker, Hugo Martin Recinos-Recinos, was threatened by several men in his home after he brought a class action lawsuit against Express Forestry Inc. for violations of minimum wage and overtime protections.

The report recommends that federal laws and regulations currently protecting guest workers from abuse and federal agency enforcement of guest worker protections provided under the H-2 visa system should be strengthened.

Finally, the SPLC recommends congress should provide guest workers with meaningful access to the legal system and courts.

However the immigration process is changed in the future, safeguards for migrant workers rights must be protected and strengthened, said the report.

“Future flows of immigrants into this country need to be addressed in a realistic manner to the extent that the international movement of people because of economic disparity creates a certain reality that is ripe for exploitation,” said Workers Rights Advocacy Director Milan Bhatt at the New York Immigration Coalition, in an interview with IPS.

The SPLC’s report was released as both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are working behind closed doors to construct a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Most analysts believe the bills will include some provision for a path to “earned citizenship” for current workers who are undocumented, but the bill is unlikely to come up for a vote until after the presidential election in November 2008.

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