Who are guestworkers?
Guestworkers arrive from across the world to work in critical U.S. industries, including construction, welding, education, landscaping, 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 2006, Daniel Castellanos arrived as a guestworker in post-Katrina New Orleans to work at Decatur Hotels. He plunged his family into debt to pay recruiters who promised him decent work at $10-15 an hour. He was paid as low as $6.02 an hour. He and his fellow workers were unable even to cover their living expenses in New Orleans, let alone pay down their debt or support their families back home. When Daniel organized workers into a campaign to hold the employer accountable, he was fired.
In 2007, over 500 pipefitters and welders were brought from India to Mississippi and Texas. Aby Raju paid recruiters nearly $20,000, relying on promises of good work, a green card, and permanent residency for his family. He was trafficked to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, where he was held in forced labor by marine fabricator Signal International. He and other workers organized against deplorable conditions under the threat of deportation, and faced surveil- lance and retaliation from immigration authorities.
In 2009, workers from El Salvador, Peru, and Bolivia were lured to Louisiana. When they arrived, they were leased for profit to perform hazardous waste removal across the South, at job sites that included military bases, schools and public hospitals.
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 guest- workers 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 a single employer, 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 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.