As Congress edges toward passing a bill to fund the government, a coalition of senators is working behind the scenes to attach provisions that would undercut the wages of low-skilled U.S. workers and pave the way for more international labor trafficking.

These provisions seek to accomplish something that business interests failed to do through years of litigation: shred the already weak worker protections in the notorious H-2B guest worker program.


This is a program that allows U.S. employers to recruit tens of thousands of foreign laborers – most of them impoverished and desperate for wages – for temporary jobs in industries like forestry, landscaping, seafood processing and hospitality.

The program is already so rife with abuses that it has often been compared to indentured servitude and even slavery. These workers don’t even enjoy the most fundamental protections of a free market – the ability to change jobs if they suffer abuse or discrimination. And U.S. workers’ wages and working conditions suffer when ethical employers are undercut by abusive employers who exploit vulnerable foreign laborers.

Now, a bipartisan group of senators wants to expand this flawed program while reducing not only wages and regulatory oversight but also transparency and employer accountability for recruiting abuses. The legislation also would free employers to more easily hire foreign workers without first seeking U.S. workers to fill the same jobs.

In short, it will incentivize employers and unscrupulous international recruiters to scour the globe in search of the most vulnerable, disposable workers they can find. More workers will be defrauded, trafficked and lured to this country under false pretenses. It’s duplicitous of legislators to support harsher punishments for traffickers while at the same time creating conditions for them to thrive.

We will inevitably see the same kinds of abuses that were faced by nearly 500 H-2B workers from India who came to this country beginning in 2006 to repair damaged oil facilities after Hurricane Katrina.

Recruiters promised not only good jobs at shipyards in Mississippi and Texas but also permanent U.S. residency for them and their families. The men each paid between $10,000 and $15,000 to recruiters for the opportunity. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.

But when they arrived, they discovered it was a lie. There would be no permanent residency – only jobs lasting just under a year. And the company, Signal International, forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer.   

The men lived under strict rules. Visitors were rarely allowed, and company employees searched their belongings. Those who complained were threatened with deportation – a disastrous prospect for those who had mortgaged their futures to obtain the jobs. Some of the men were even detained for hours by company security guards after speaking to workers’ rights advocates. One was so distraught over his predicament that he attempted suicide.

An economist later testified the company saved $8 million by hiring the workers rather than recruiting U.S. workers to perform the same jobs.

Last February, after a four-week trial, a federal jury in New Orleans awarded $14 million in damages to five of the men after finding that Signal and its agents engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. The company later reached a $20 million settlement for the claims of these men and hundreds of others.

These workers were comparatively lucky, because they were able to escape and find nonprofit civil rights organizations willing to take on their cause in what turned out to be a grueling, seven-year legal battle. 

However, most labor trafficking never gets reported, and most guest workers do not have access to legal counsel. And while the scale of the Signal case may have been unusual, the abuses documented are similar to those faced by thousands of other guest workers.

Congress should not pay lip service to ending labor trafficking and should reject this blatant attempt to lower the rights and wages of guest workers. If lawmakers truly want to stop labor trafficking instead of punishing the few traffickers that get caught, they must reduce the vulnerability of all workers – particularly immigrant workers – to exploitation. 

To prevent labor trafficking, Congress should increase transparency and accountability for H-2B employers. And to protect the interests of U.S. workers, it should ensure that employers pay fair wages to guest workers and that foreign workers have the same protections as U.S. workers – in effect, creating a level playing field for all.

Werner is a senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. Bruggeman is the executive director of the Freedom Network USA Education Fund.