The Hill op-ed
May 11, 2015
By Saket Soni
What do Vietnamese refugees, prison laborers, and H-2B guestworkers have in common? More than they should.
On Wednesday, testimony before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee revealed the dirty truth about why low-road businesses have been fighting so hard to stop the Department of Labor (DOL) from reforming the H-2B guestworker program.
The H-2B program has become notorious in recent years for case after case of severe labor exploitation—often rising to the level of forced labor—especially in the seafood processing industry.
So it was fitting that Wednesday’s hearing included testimony by Frank Randol, owner of a Louisiana seafood processing business. Randol spoke out to condemn new H-2B program rules by the DOL and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—long-overdue reforms that provide basic labor protections for guestworkers and the more than 24 million U.S. workers alongside them in core H-2B industries.
Randol told how his company had once employed Vietnamee refugees to do his seafood processing work. More recently, he used prison laborers through a “trustee program”—though by his own testimony, the incarcerated workers found conditions so poor that they preferred to return to prison rather than continue working at Randol’s plant.
Now that Randol has come to rely on H-2B workers, he complained that he was facing a threat he suggested was as dangerous to his business as floods and hurricanes: workers standing up for their rights.
For low-road employers who are determined to shop for the cheapest, most exploitable workers possible—those least able to exercise basic labor rights—the H-2B program has been a boon. H-2B employers routinely subject their guestworkers to brutal conditions and pay far below minimum wage, and use threats of firing and blacklisting to silence worker complaints. The H-2B program binds workers to a single employer, so firing means deportation to workers’ home countries, where they face crushing program-related debts and no way to pay them back.
The DOL has been trying to institute protections against this kind of abuse since 2012. Employers, industry groups, and their Congressional backers have fought desperately to block them—even while federal courts and the General Accounting Office affirmed that the program’s flaws were driving down wages and conditions for all workers.
So what exactly is in the new rules that Randol and others find so threatening?
- prohibitions on employer intimidation, blacklisting, or other discriminatory behavior against guestworkers who seek to enforce their rights or consult with workers’ centers or attorneys;
- protections to prevent employers from shifting the costs of travel, visa, and recruitment to H-2B workers, which would help eliminate debt servitude;
- stronger guarantees that unemployed U.S. workers have a chance to learn about and apply for the jobs;
- an employer registration process that could expedite the labor certification process; and
- stronger rules to debar employers and agents who abuse the program.
If these don’t sound like radical measures, it’s because they’re not. They’re commonsense, long-overdue rules that will protect millions of U.S. workers, guestworkers, and the high-road employers who are currently being undercut by businesses that profit from exploitation.
Low-road employers will always put greed over worker dignity. And business lobbyists will meet any rule or reform, however good for workers and high-road employers, with cookie-cutter complaints of overregulation.
The DOL and DHS have taken an important step against the race to the bottom that’s taken a toll on every worker in the U.S. You don’t have to listen to workers and their advocates to understand why we need these new rules. It’s just as clear when you listen to their critics.
Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.