Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come to the United States to work in jobs of all skill levels on temporary guest worker visas, yet these legal pathways fail to empower working people with real rights and protections.
As the debate over immigration reform heats up once again, the role and impact of the many visa programs that bring new workers into our country is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. Unjust immigration laws clearly have been used to lower wages and labor standards in the United States. However, the cause of this problem is not immigrant workers themselves, but rather a system that allows employers to hire people who by law have virtually no rights and are therefore easy targets for exploitation and abuse. Reforming these programs is critical to building a rights-based immigration system that promotes shared prosperity and respects the dignity and contributions of all working people.
Here are the top 10 ways that guest worker visa programs fail to protect immigrant rights:
- Most guest workers have to pay high fees to get their jobs. International labor recruiters charge people exorbitant fees for the opportunity to work temporarily in the United States. Many workers are forced to borrow money at high interest rates and even use the deeds to their homes as collateral. Workers who arrive in the United States deeply in debt are vulnerable and much less likely to leave the job, whatever the conditions, without first earning enough to repay their debt. International labor recruiters rarely are held responsible for their illegal and abusive tactics, and there is no liability for U.S. employers who benefit from the labor supplied by these recruiters.
- Guest worker programs tie workers to a single employer. With few exceptions, the legal immigration status of a guest worker is dependent on employer sponsorship. When a person holds a visa that is linked to a single employer and that employer is abusive—for example, by stealing wages or not providing a safe work environment—the person is left with few options. That person must either endure the unlawful conditions or return home immediately; she can rarely secure another job. This unjust system allows employers to wield enormous power over an essentially captive workforce and deters guest workers from asserting their rights under U.S. law. High debts combined with this lack of alternatives make guest workers extremely vulnerable to human trafficking.
- The levels of abuse guest workers face are shockingly high. In practice, temporary work visa programs have become a legalized structure for exploiting people and increasing their vulnerability to severe labor exploitation. Guest workers routinely face fraud, wage theft, discrimination, confiscation of passports, economic coercion, retaliation, blacklisting and, in some cases, forced labor, indentured servitude, debt bondage and human trafficking. These abuses are not isolated events—the government’s own reports make clear that the problems are egregious and widespread.
- Guest workers who exercise their rights can get deported or blacklisted. Employers frequently retaliate against working people for speaking out or attempting to organize to improve working conditions. In most cases, a guest worker who is fired or resigns in protest is no longer authorized to remain in the United States; the person is required to return to her home country within days. Upon return home, people who asserted their rights on the job have faced physical and financial threats and often are blacklisted by recruiters who control access to future employment opportunities in the United States.
- Guest worker programs allow for discrimination. The U.S. government’s anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. Yet, recruiters and employers openly express preferences related to national origin, gender and age when hiring people on temporary visas. In this way, guest worker programs are quietly re-segregating entire sectors of the U.S. workforce into jobs and visa categories based on racialized and gendered notions of work.
- Many guest worker programs are anti-family. Most low-wage and seasonal guest workers must work in the United States without their family members, so they are separated from their spouses and children for extended periods. This is particularly problematic since employers often misuse seasonal visas to employ workers for many years at a time, greatly increasing the duration and trauma of family separation. In addition, visas for guest workers’ family members generally prohibit them from working.
- Guest worker programs don’t require equal pay. There are many ways for employers to game the visa system to legally underpay guest workers. The visa regulations that set the minimum wage levels are inadequate and allow employers to misclassify workers to drive down labor costs. The wage requirements effectively become a ceiling on the wages that are offered to guest workers and, consequently, to any workers in the same industry. The difference between the local average wage rates and the wages offered to guest workers becomes a corporate subsidy to companies that no longer have to use the free market to set their pay scales high enough to attract local workers. The perverse financial incentives created by these unjust regulations have led to the erosion of living wages across entire industries, which are now nearly impossible to staff without guest workers.
- Guest workers are not assured equal benefits or legal protections. Some visa programs require guest workers to pay taxes for benefits they are not eligible to receive, while others allow employers to avoid payments into the social safety net altogether. In addition, some guest workers are excluded from key employment-related protections under law, and people brave enough to report labor violations face incredible obstacles to accessing legal services in the United States. Those who are able to muster the courage and resources to pursue a case face many difficulties litigating in the transnational arena. As a result, employers have little reason to fear ever being sanctioned for violating the rights of guest workers.
- Guest worker programs disempower workers and allow them to be pitted against each other.Employers routinely misuse guest worker programs to undercut or displace an existing local workforce. Despite prevailing assumptions, most employers are not required to document a real labor shortage before hiring guest workers. These regulatory shortfalls allow hiring with the express intent to drive down wages and standards and challenge efforts to ensure that all workers on American soil feel connected and protected. Making matters more complicated, employers often attempt to hide their abuse of visa programs by hiring through third-party outsourcing firms or “body shops.” These low-road employers undermine permanent employment, allow for differential treatment of people performing the same work and erode worker unity by blurring the true nature of the employment relationship.
- Guest worker programs don’t provide a path to citizenship. With few exceptions, guest worker programs are temporary in nature and require people to return to their home countries when the visa expires. The few visas that do allow conversion to permanent status keep that decision and power in the hands of employers, who continue to wield undue control over the lives and livelihoods of the guest workers as a result.The biggest users of temporary visas sponsor their workers for green cards at very low rates, indicating they prefer to employ vulnerable guest workers over workers with rights, seniority and labor market mobility.
The labor movement remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform that provides a broad and inclusive pathway to citizenship for the current undocumented population and reforms our employment-based visa system to ensure that it is responsive to actual labor market needs and empowers working people with full rights and protections.