The Hill op-ed
August 8, 2015
Life as Donald Trump’s guestworker
By Saket Soni
What’s it like being a guestworker for Donald Trump?
I don’t know firsthand. But as director of the National Guestworker Alliance, I’ve met and organized thousands of guestworkers in the same federal visa programs Trump used to apply for over 1,000 foreign workers for his companies since 2000. So I’ve got some pretty good guesses.
If Trump’s guestworkers are like the overwhelming majority of workers in the H-2A, H-2B, and H-1B programs, they were lured by recruiters in their home countries who promised them steady work, good pay, and the chance to provide for their families.
Maybe they’d heard stories from friends and relatives who’d gone to the U.S. as guestworkers with high hopes, only to face brutal conditions, stolen wages, threats of physical violence by bosses, sexual harassment and even assault.
But they must have decided it was worth the risk—likely because the prospects at home were even grimmer. Many guestworkers, especially in the H-2A and H-2B programs, come from areas wracked by economic desperation and violence, such as Mexico’s Sinaloa region, home to the drug cartel that U.S. authorities call the most dangerous in the world.
It would have felt like another world at workplaces like Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Country Club in Florida, which has obtained 350 visas for H-2B waitstaff, cooks, and housekeepers since 2009, according to U.S. Department of Labor records. “Located within 20 acres of perfectly landscaped gardens and with ocean views, Mar-a-Lago is truly the crown jewel of Palm Beach,” Trump says in a welcome message on the club’s website.
But the website’s promises of an “incomparable, royal lifestyle” in “the greatest mansion ever built” wouldn’t extend to Trump’s guestworkers. They would have arrived in the U.S., like all guestworkers in the H-2B program, with two strikes against them.
First, they would be bound to the Mar-A-Lago by program rules. If they left their employer for any reason, they would be immediately out of status and facing deportation. Second, they would be facing crushing debt in their home countries from program-related fees and recruitment costs, and no way to pay them back. In essence, no matter what kind of workplace abuse they might face—from the wage theft and threats of blacklisting faced by H-2B guestworkers at other Florida resorts, to the forced labor exposed by H-2B workers on Walmart’s U.S. supply chain—they’d be trapped.
Any abuse they faced wouldn’t just hurt them. One of the reasons low-road employers love guestworker programs is that by trapping guestworkers in exploitation, they can drive down wages and conditions for the U.S. workers in the same industries. With more than 24 million U.S. workers work alongside guestworkers in the core H-2B industries of hospitality, construction, landscaping, and food processing, that’s a problem that touches just about everyone.
Otherwise, low-road employers can use guestworker programs to simply replace U.S. workers with cheaper, more exploitable workers—as did Disney late last year, laying off 250 IT workers to replace them with H-1B guestworkers, but requiring the local workers to train their replacements first. Employers seeking guestworkers are technically required to certify that no U.S. workers are available for the job, but there’s virtually no way to hold them to their word.
So why is Donald Trump, while promising to be “the greatest jobs president that God has ever created,” relying on programs that are rife with abuse and forced labor, programs that drive down wages and conditions for millions of U.S. workers—or else deprive them of jobs altogether? Why is he seeking H-2B guestworkers, 80 percent of whom come from Mexico, then defaming Mexican migrants as “rapists”? We know Trump’s not afraid of tough questions. So we’d like to hear his answers.
And it’s one thing to guess at what life is like for Trump’s guestworkers. But we’d like to ask them ourselves. It won’t be easy for them to speak up: if the bosses at Trump’s workplaces are like those at many other guestworker employers, they may be holding captive audience meetings with Trump’s guestworkers right now, threatening them with firing, deportation, and blacklisting if they speak up about abuse.
Of course, Trump could just plead ignorance about the whole thing—however out of character that would be.
But at the end of the day, shouldn’t a man who claims his business experience is the reason he should be the next president of the United States be able to answer for how, and with whom, he runs his businesses?
What do you say, Donald?
Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.