The H-2B guest worker visa program is plagued by fraud and abuse. Designed to allow employers to hire temporary guest workers for nonagricultural labor, the H-2B program lacks provisions, which would protect workers from wage theft, forced labor, predatory recruitment fees and other forms of exploitation. Guest workers in the United States are legally tied to their employer and are often forced to assume crippling debts for the opportunity to pursue low-wage work.
Yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) hosted a press conference denouncing efforts to block proposed Department of Labor worker protections in the H-2B program. Joined by representatives from the AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and two Central American workers hired under the H-2B program, the speakers condemned the abuses inherent in the guest worker visa system and the members of Congress and the business community who work to perpetuate them.
Ana Avendaño, director of Immigration and Community Action at the AFL-CIO, calls the H-2B an “exploit and displace program,” as employers frequently use the visa to secure a vulnerable and low-paid immigrant workforce while avoiding U.S. labor laws and higher-paid U.S. workers.
In February, the Department of Labor announced a new set of modest regulations of the H-2B program that would have required employers to pay for a guest worker’s travel and visa expenses, guarantee three-quarters of promised work, disclose their use of foreign labor recruiters and make more efforts to advertise jobs to U.S. workers. Days before the new rules were to go into effect, a number of business interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, obtained a court injunction blocking them.
The conflict was a replay of last fall, when corporate lobbyists swayed a bipartisan group of legislators to vote to postpone for a year a new Labor Department rule that would have prohibited employers from legally underpaying H-2B workers.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) furthered the corporate campaign by introducing an amendment to stop both of the rules, which the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted last month. A House subcommittee also approved a draft bill last week that would effectively kill the regulations by denying funding and barring them from taking effect.
Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at EPI, presented to those in attendance data on stagnant wages and high unemployment—typically indicators of a labor surplus—in landscaping, forestry, construction, seafood processing and hospitality to counter the argument used by business interests that H-2B guest workers are needed to fill shortages in these occupations.
The case for the new regulations was made most clear when the two guest workers put a human face on the exploitation experienced under the H-2B program. Speaking under pseudonyms for their personal safety, the two told similar stories of being lured into the United States by the promise of making two weeks’ worth of salary in one day, only to have their passports confiscated, receive short working hours and find themselves and their families saddled with huge debt from recruitment fees.
Referencing a 2007 SPLC study, "Close to Slavery," SPLC Legal Director Mary Bauer put the workers’ stories in stark terms, saying that the H-2B program is “closer to slavery than we’d be comfortable with.”
Bauer told the audience:
Let’s be clear, any lawmaker who supports this amendment is supporting less access to jobs for U.S. workers and encouraging the exploitation of the foreign workers filling those positions. Our country is better than this. Members of Congress must oppose this effort to gut these important regulations.