We know that women often hit a glass ceiling when trying to advance in the workforce, but migrant women seeking the American Dream get slammed into a glass wall. Thousands of women migrants cycle through the United States each year on temporary labor visas. But they are denied—legally—many protections mandated by regular federal labor laws. According to a new report by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), visa-based labor programs enable companies to profit from a two-tier workforce stratified by gender and immigration status, leaving migrant women especially vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.
Migrant temp workers share the poverty and precarity of undocumented workers, with a key difference: They’re technically “legal,” thanks to their sponsoring employers. So if they have work papers, why don’t their papers come with rights too?
The study surveyed women workers from a wide range of contract-labor schemes that different industries use to fill temporary job slots. Visa categories cover farmworkers and housekeepers, engineers and summer resort staff. But whether immigrant women work as au pairs or fruit pickers, the study reveals that the visa programs are structured to deny them many of the fair-labor standards and protections afforded to citizens. The only thing these programs ensure, essentially, is that, as long as you’re on US soil, you’re a virtual captive of your boss.
For many of the women, restrictive labor contracts led to situations in which they faced sexual abuse, labor violations, or wage theft. Nearly half of the women surveyed reported being paid below the federal minimum wage. A majority received no overtime pay. Because of deep regulatory gaps, researchers say, migrant women are subjected to “systemic flaws [and] restrictions on access to justice” that enable companies and labor-recruitment agencies to “ensnare them in exploitation and trafficking schemes.”
Visa rules often drive broader patterns of structural discrimination, because the categorization system effectively promotes institutionalized gender bias. In the H-visa category, for example, men are generally placed in H2A jobs, which are industrial jobs that tend to be more standardized and higher paying. But women are “tracked exclusively” into H2B jobs, which tend to be more precarious.
According to CDM Director of Operations Julia Coburn, the segregated hiring patterns used in both programs serve as a proxy for gender discrimination, and in many low-wage industries, “employers and recruiters are systematically excluding women from physically demanding jobs based on gendered and illegal tropes that represent women as incapable and incompetent to logistically handle” H-2A jobs.
In the Gulf Coast’s seasonal seafood industry, for example, women get placed in crabmeat-processing positions, doing piece work on assembly lines, while men typically work as cooks and haulers. Piece work leads to wage volatility, as women are under pressure to produce more to earn more by slicing and picking crabmeat at a frenzied pace. The seafood factory proves that “women’s work” can be just as rough as jobs traditionally done by men, Coburn says, as the crab pickers “risk chronic stress injuries from sustained, repetitive activity.”