December 15, 2016
“Trump’s opportunity to help millions of workers in our country”
By Saket Soni
While Donald Trump was taking his victory lap over the deal to stop Carrier Corporation from moving 800 Indiana jobs to Mexico, many pointed out that the deal offers little hope for the larger U.S. workforce. No presidential administration could cut individual deals with every U.S. company looking to outsource jobs.
There is something Trump can do, though, about the abuse of insourcing. Companies outsource jobs to take advantage of cheaper workers in Mexico, India and China. When they can’t move their facilities abroad, they often import foreign workers into the U.S. instead through federal guestworker programs. But abuse of these programs is rampant—and hurts both guestworkers and U.S. workers.
Trump surprised many when he named ending guestworker program abuse as a top priority for his first 100 days.
“On immigration,” Trump said in a message to the country, “I will direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker.”
Program rules are meant to ensure that employers can hire guestworkers only where U.S. workers aren’t available. But many employers abuse the program by finding ways to violate this rule.
In one recent case, the Walt Disney Company laid off 250 U.S.-born IT workers and replaced them with H-1B visa holders. To add insult to injury, Disney made the U.S.-born workers spend their final weeks training their guestworker replacements. Trump used the Disney case as fodder on the campaign trail, though it hasn’t stopped him from naming Disney chief executive Bob Iger to his strategic and policy forum.
It’s not just U.S. workers who lose when employers abuse guestworker programs. Guestworkers do, too. Since the visas bind guestworkers to a single job, employers often treat them as a captive workforce. Companies routinely subject guestworkers to wage theft, deplorable working and living conditions, and even forced labor. If the workers speak up, employers can silence them with threats of firing and deportation.
Abuses like these have been well documented among temporary H-2B guestworkers. The organization I lead, the National Guestworker Alliance, helped 200 H-2B workers from India escape a labor trafficking ring at oil services company Signal International in 2008. The company was hit with a $14 million verdict in federal court last year. Our organization also exposed forced labor conditions among H-2B guestworkers on Walmart’s U.S. seafood supply chain in 2012.
Today, these abuses have moved to the heart of the high-tech revolution. A report earlier this year revealed the abuse of Eastern European guestworkers on B1 and B2 visas at a Tesla plant in Fremont, California. The guestworkers were paid as little as $5 an hour and worked in dangerous conditions that nearly killed one of them after a three-story fall.
When guestworkers can be trapped in labor abuse, wages and conditions fall for the tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them in the same industries. We have to ensure that employers can’t use guestworker programs to displace U.S. workers the way Disney did. No less important is giving both guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them the power to stand up against labor abuse.
The good news is that a blueprint already exists for doing just that. A bipartisan Senate bill on comprehensive immigration reform introduced in 2013 included commonsense rules that would protect guestworkers and undocumented workers who stand up against labor abuse from employer retaliation. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.) proposed these same protections as a standalone bill, called the Protecting Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act.
U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and officials at his department have worked valiantly to modernize visa program rules, prevent employers from bypassing available U.S. workers and stop retaliation against guestworker whistleblowers, despite being massively underresourced.
The bad news is that many of these commonsense reforms have been opposed by industry groups like the Chamber of Commerce and their allies in Congress every step of the way. Republican congressional leaders—and even some Democrats—have continued to push to expandguestworker programs. They have shown little regard for enforcing the worker protections that already exist. Trump’s pick for U.S. labor secretary, fast food executive Andy Puzder, has also called for an increase in guestworkers.
Trump could surprise us all by pushing through needed reforms, even if it means handing Democrats a moral victory in the process. Regardless, the U.S. workers that Trump has pledged to protect should be fighting for them as the guestworkers alongside them already are.
Saket Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.