Who are guestworkers?
Guestworkers arrive from across the world to work in critical U.S. industries, including construction, agriculture, education, food processing, and hospitality. They come to the United States because of the job crisis at home. Guestworkers are forced to choose between living with the families they love and providing for them.
In 2007, Aby Raju was one of over 500 pipefitters and welders from India who paid recruiters nearly $20,000 each, relying on promises of good work, a green card, and permanent residency for their families. Instead, they were held in forced labor by marine fabricator Signal International. The workers organized under the threat of deportation, and faced surveillance and retaliation from immigration authorities.
In 2011, Ionut Bilan and 400 more student guestworkers from around the world went on strike from the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, where they faced brutal conditions, sub-minimum wage pay, and threats of deportation. The positions they filled had previously been permanent, living-wage jobs with a union contract. Then Hershey’s used layers of subcontractors to replace them with a year-round succession of exploitable student guestworkers.
In 2012, Ana Rosa Diaz and fellow guestworkers from Mexico exposed forced labor at a Louisiana Walmart supplier called C.J.’s Seafood. Supervisors threatened to beat them with a shovel to make them work faster, and when they spoke up, the boss threatened violence against their families.
In March 2013, student guestworkers from around the world exposed exploitation at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. They reported shifts of up to 25 hours straight with no overtime pay. They were made to live in substandard, employer-owned housing, and faced threats of deportation when they raised concerns.
U.S. Guestworker Program: Rules of the Game
1Trapped in debt. Desperate for work, guestworkers plunge their families deep into debt to pay recruitment fees and visa costs, believing recruiters’ promises of the American dream.
2Lured by false promises. When they arrive in the U.S., they learn that the promises were false. Instead of green cards, decent work, fair pay, and the American dream, employers subject guestworkers to deplorable living and working conditions.
3Live and work under the employer’s complete control. Workers live in labor camps, often on company property. Their movements to and from work are controlled, and they are subjected to surveillance by their employers.
4Tied to a single employer. Guestworkers are bound by law to one boss, and cannot work for anyone else. If they leave that employer for any reason—even to escape exploitation and forced labor—they lose their legal status, and can be arrested and deported.
5Face retaliation for organizing. When workers organize to access their rights, employers retaliate. Workers face termination—and deportation into virtual debt servitude in their home countries.
Leveling the Playing Field: Reforming the H-2B Program to Protect Guestworkers and U.S. Workers, a report released by the NGA in June 2012, details how employers have turned the H-2B visa program into the “ultimate tool” for undercutting U.S. workers and exploiting low-wage guestworkers, while corporate lobbyists block Department of Labor reforms that would level the playing field.
The report highlights cases of exploitation from Texas to Tennessee, and calls for four indispensable reforms that would end employer abuse and protect both guestworkers and U.S. workers:
- Guaranteeing guestworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation;
- Prohibiting employers from using guestworkers as cheap, exploitable alternatives to U.S. workers;
- Eliminating debt servitude and other elements of human trafficking in the program; and
- Subjecting employers to meaningful government enforcement and community oversight.