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Immigration Reform Would Unlock Temporary Foreign Workers from ‘Debt Bondage’ to Recruiters

Temporary foreign workers, from teachers to agriculture workers to au pairs, typically pay recruiting fees to individuals or agencies retained by U.S. employers seeking foreign labor. These fees can range from $500 to well over $10,000, even for temporary jobs that pay little. That means these workers arrive in the United States deeply in debt because they must borrow money, often at high interest rates.

Saddled with huge debts that are difficult if not impossible to repay, these workers are ripe for exploitation and fearful to speak about employer abuse and working conditions that are far removed from the promises made by their home nation recruiters.

As The New York Times wrote in an editorial earlier this year:

Those who do speak out are threatened, fired, deported and blacklisted. They have little opportunity to complain about unsafe working conditions, to sue for stolen wages or to assert their rights to overtime and time off.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744) now before the Senate includes crucial provisions that address the widespread recruitment abuses, including prohibiting foreign labor recruiters from charging workers recruitment fees such as visa processing, placement, legal and other fees. The bill also includes workplace protections for the workers when they arrive in the United States.

 

But there are moves to water down the recruitment abuse protections and even in the case of au pairs—usually employed by wealthy families—exempt them completely. (See below.)    

Here are just two examples from the immigrant worker advocacy group Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) of the kind of outrageous fees and abuses immigrant guest workers face.

Ingrid Cruz is one of 300 Filipino teachers, now represented by the AFT, who was recruited to teach in public schools in Louisiana with an H-1B visa. She paid more than $16,000 to obtain a job in the U.S. and was made to sign a contract that required payment of additional fees amounting to 10% of her first and second year salaries.

Jayson arrived in the U.S. from the Philippines to work at a retirement home. He was forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and had to sleep on the floor in the hallway. When he demanded better working conditions, he was threatened with deportation. Jayson’s story illustrates the abuses that migrant workers face, including human trafficking. He is now working with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST).

Today the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) is holding a day of social media action, via Twitter (#fairlaborrecruitment), Facebook and other platforms, to raise awareness of the recruitment abuse and the need to maintain the immigration bill’s strong provisions against them.

 

On June 10, the ILRWG—a coalition of faith, labor and worker advocacy groups—will hold a conference to detail recruitment abuse and trafficking of internationally recruited workers. Click here for more information on the meeting and here for fact sheets, reports and other material on recruitment abuses.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that recent emails from au pair agencies about worker protections in the immigration bill, “sent ripples of fear among upscale parents,” who pay the agencies at least $7,000 a year, according to the paper, for providing au pairs. Usually, young women between 18 and 26, care for the families’ children but are often required to perform other duties and work longer hours than the current rules governing au pairs allow.   

Not only do these au pair agencies charge the families for the au pairs travel, visa processing and other program fees, according to workers’ rights groups, the agencies charge the au pairs some of the same fees, in effect double-dipping.  

The emails also warns that new worker protections for au pairs in the bill  would “create more cost and complexity for the Au Pair Program and could greatly harm, and potentially even end,” the au pair program.  

Learn more about the exploitation of au pairs in this 2012 paper by American University law professor Janie Chuang, in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender.

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