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.
(The same pattern has repeated itself in every iteration of government-sponsored contract labor, dating back to the Bracero era, when Mexican migrant farmworkers were known for “skipping” contracts to resist forced servitude under brutal growers.)
Besides, while EPI cites differential wages in federal records, what workers are actually paid is another matter, particularly if they are employed through fly-by-night staffing agencies that contract them out to brand-name firms, while further removing migrants from any control over their working conditions.
A civil suit recently brought by a group of Jamaican H-2B guestworkers charges the Kiawah Golf Resorts in South Carolina with systematic wage theft, alleging that the resort violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and never paid the mandated wage set under the program’s guidelines, … in part to various travel costs and fees imposed on the workers as a condition of their employment. Some workers had allegedly been underpaid by as much as $2.20 per hour. They were working as housekeepers, servers, and bell persons for patrons who paid up to $1,000 per night for their lavish service.
Complaining about the system can cost a worker a livelihood and legal status. Shellion Parris, a former H-2B worker from Jamaica, helped launch a federal crackdown when she and coworkers organized an uprising against a Florida staffing agency, charging them with fraud and exploitation after they were denied the hotel housekeeping jobs they were promised and held in squalid conditions. Her hopes of vindication were upturned, however, when her petition for immigration relief foundered, leaving her destitute and stranded abroad after paying thousands. “We were all in debt when we came here,” Parris told The Nation last October. “We’re still in debt.”
Clete Kiley, a campaigner with the hospitality worker union UNITE HERE, says, “there’s no negotiation for these workers and…they end up coming to the US and end up in indentured servitude, rather than having a job which provides them enough to send money back home…that’s their whole motivation for coming here.” And without strong oversight, he adds, “if somebody in Jamaica says…you’ll make 40 hours a week, and then they get here and they only work for 20 hours a week, where do they get to say that that contract was violated?… Where are the inspectors, where are the legal protections for folks who come in?”
While Obama’s deportations top one million and immigration reform stagnates in Washington, Congress just expanded the H-2B program to roughly 200,000 visas. The legislation also may shred key protections the administration recently implemented, by weakening funding for enforcement and rolling back rules on setting guestworker wage standards based on industry conditions. According to EPI analyst Daniel Costa, beyond the program’s expansion, employers scored a major political win with the softening of the arcane federal “prevailing wage” mandates: They are able to legally underpay migrant temporary workers while also shaping the local labor market to their advantage, “because employers will be able to advertise jobs at lower-than-local-average wages, making them less attractive to US workers.”
Yet the economic pull for migration remains, and workers will come with or without papers. The other side of the story of migrant desperation is even more tragic: the vast numbers of unauthorized low-wage workers the government banishes each day. They represent a different kind of legal victimization. Both groups, ironically, fear the threat of getting deported for breaking rules that are rigged against them. With their basic freedom of movement constrained by the border on one side and their boss on the other, they are always criminalized in an economy that treats its guests like trespassers.