While the U.S. Department of Labor has introduced new rules to curb abuses of U.S. and foreign workers affected by the H-2B program, a team of Senators led by Richard Shelby of Alabama is now attempting to block the rules by denying the Department of Labor enforcement funds. This is a mistake for several reasons.
In fall 2010, undercover investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office actually captured recruiters advising employers on how to circumvent rules on worker recruitment to weed out U.S. workers. Similarly, DOL’s own recent audit discovered that almost half of H-2B employers that attested compliance with regulatory obligations were not, in fact, compliant.
At the same time, foreign workers have fallen prey to unscrupulous employers and recruiters who search the developing world for the most vulnerable workers they can hire. Lured with false promises of permanent green cards and lucrative jobs when these workers arrive in the United States — after signing over property deeds, dissolving life savings and falling into debt to pay up to $20,000 in “recruitment” fees — the well-paid jobs they were promised don’t materialize. Instead, they are forced to work off their debt in horrendous conditions.
Compounding problems, in many cases guest workers don’t or can’t speak up, due to well-founded fears of retaliation. By law, their visas are tied to only one employer, so complaints about harsh and illegal conditions almost surely result in deportation.
The new DOL rules, that some Senators are threatening to block Thursday, are common sense. In a struggling economy, they establish prevailing wages and recruitment requirements that ensure that companies first look to U.S. workers to fill seasonal jobs, including workers recently laid off. They outlaw the exorbitant “recruitment fees” that impoverish many guest workers and leave their families destitute. They require employers to disclose the names of their recruiters and to prohibit them from charging such fees. They also beef up government oversight to ensure compliance.
In short, the new rules are a modest attempt to bring order to a system in dire need of it. Senators and H-2B employers alike should get behind this sensible approach and not stand in the way of treating workers fairly.
The human rights abuses occurring under H-2B are documented in government and private studies, and the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission have prosecuted dozens of cases. The EEOC recovered an estimated $1 million for 48 H-2B welders from Thailand who were held against their will, had their passports confiscated, were forced to work without pay and were confined to apartments without any electricity, water or gas. Private litigants, including Filipino teachers, Indian welders, Guatemalan forestry workers and Mexican landscapers, have similarly brought legal action alleging forced labor and trafficking in the H-2B program.
Additionally, the International Labor Organization and other international bodies have noted that conditions under which guest workers labor are ripe for human rights violations. These studies and legal cases are only the tip of the iceberg.
In light of all this, the new rules are a good move for workers both inside and outside the United States. They make certain that the program is used consistently with its aims: to ensure temporary workers are hired for jobs where U.S. workers aren’t available and to ensure that the rash of forced labor cases in the temporary foreign worker program ends now. Any Senators who have a problem with that have some real explaining to do.
Smith is the coordinator of the Immigrant Worker Justice Project at the National Employment Law Project.