24 million reasons to protect immigrant whistle-blowers

In a U.S. economy where tens of millions are struggling, guest workers on H-2B visas are trapped at the bottom. These so-called “low skilled” temporary workers occupy fields from hospitality to construction to landscaping to food processing — alongside 24 million U.S. workers in the same sectors. And the job quality of those 24 million depends on whether guest workers can blow the whistle on abuse.

{mosads}To understand why, take Ana Diaz. Ana came to the United States from Mexico last year as an H-2B guest worker. Ana peeled crawfish for a Wal-Mart supplier in Louisiana who subjected her and her fellow guest workers to shifts of up to 24 hours with no overtime pay. Supervisors locked them into the plant to prevent breaks, and threatened to beat them with a shovel to make them work faster. When workers complained, the boss responded with threats of violence against them and their families.

Ana’s story is far from unique. The National Guestworker Alliance has worked with thousands of guest workers facing severe employer abuse, from wage theft to forced labor. When workers try to blow the whistle, employers retaliate to scare them into silence.

Big business is seeking access to as many cheap, exploitable guest workers as possible through immigration reform. The current Senate immigration bill is set to give them just that. The bill would hugely expand the H-2B program over the next four years, from 66,000 workers to 264,000, without providing key protections for H-2B whistle-blowers.

Why does this matter for U.S. workers? Because the conditions of workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy — guest workers like Ana — help determine the job quality of the more than 24 million U.S. workers who work alongside them in the same sectors. When employers can get away with exploiting guest workers, it forces U.S. workers into a race to the bottom, driving down wages and conditions for all.

Americans already know this. In a national poll this March, 75 percent agreed that “if employers are allowed to get away with mistreating immigrant workers, it ends up lowering wages and hurting conditions for American workers as well.” In the same poll, 89 percent agreed that “immigration reform should protect the rights of both U.S. born and immigrant workers, because all workers deserve dignity and freedom from exploitation.” Eighty percent agreed that “immigrant workers who blow the whistle on abusive employers are helping defend workplace standards and should have the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to work towards citizenship.”

Tens of millions of U.S. workers already feel the floor falling. Their wages, conditions, and job security are eroding every day. If the workers at the bottom don’t have basic whistle-blower protections, the bottom will continue to fall. At the end of this process, all work in America would look like guest work: low-wage, unstable and deeply exploitative.

But when guest workers can stand up against employer abuse, they help lift the floor for all workers. Wages and conditions are more secure. Ana and her fellow guest workers showed real bravery last June, defying threats of violence, deportation and blacklisting to go public about the abuse they endured. By becoming whistle-blowers, they helped both to protect other guest workers from abuse, and to secure the job quality of millions of U.S. workers.

Whistle-blowers like Ana are standing up to help protect American workers. Shouldn’t American workers stand up to protect them?

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has introduced an amendment to the Senate immigration bill that would do just that. It would provide key protections to let H-2B whistle-blowers stand up against employer abuse without fear of retaliation. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded with a clear show of bipartisan support for the amendment, but it has yet to be added to the bill.

It is critical that the Senate immigration bill include these protections — for the future of all America’s workers.

Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Richard Blumenthal

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