America just rolled out a welcome mat for a group of very special guests. Tens of thousands more immigrants will be invited to work temporary stints in low-wage industries like housekeeping and landscaping, and their “guest treatment” typically consists of being paid less, treated worse, and having fewer rights than their US-based counterparts.
According to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the guestworker labor force provides US employers jobs on the cheap, offering less in wages and virtually nothing in terms of labor rights or benefits.
EPI’s analysis of a decade of data on guestworkers under the H-2B visa program, which pipes immigrants into temporary low-wage service-industry jobs, shows that the visa allows bosses to employ guestworkers at “hourly wage rates that are far lower than state and national averages in the overwhelming majority of cases.” For example, in the most popular H-2B industry, landscaping and groundskeeping, “employers saved on average between $2.59 and $3.37 per hour by hiring an H-2B worker instead of a worker earning the national average wage.”
Within the wage gaps (mostly in sectors paying under $15 an hour), economic security erodes. Although the premise of the H-2B program is to supplement sectors suffering a labor shortage with migrant labor, data and media reports reveal that employers routinely circumvent mandates to seek local hires first and seek the migrant recruitment industry to exploit visa loopholes. The system has become so ingrained in the production cycle that the local workforce, advocates say, is eclipsed by waves of migrant “perma-temps.”
Labor scandals in guestworker programs in recent years have prompted reforms under the Obama administration. Still, advocates say employers resist with legal challenges and everyday corruption. Guestworker programs in agriculture and industrial sectors (under two related visas, H-2A and H-2B respectively) in many regions, advocates say, still tend to exploit marginal temporary migrants, many from Latin America, the Caribbean or Asia, by shunting them into bad jobs and shutting out jobless local workers, while bosses pocket the “savings.”
This is not the standard protectionist argument about immigrants’ “taking jobs,” it’s about inequality being baked into a contract system that grants legal status in exchange for rights. In a sense, contracted guestworkers are less free than undocumented workers who can at least try to switch employers. As a recent NPR story on agricultural guestworkers points out, despite the dangers of living in the country without papers, undocumented workers at least have relative autonomy (albeit without any legal protections) to try to escape an abusive boss and reenter the underground labor market.