Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why Guestworker Programs Don't Work

A commonly stated solution for the problem of undocumented immigration is to implement a guestworker problem. Immigrant rights activists routinely note the fundamental problem with this--workers have no rights. The bracero program of the mid-twentieth century saw migrant workers suffer all sorts of abuse. Guestworker advocates say that such abuses couldn't take place today. That's just flat out not true. Mike Elk:

Last year, the leaders of the U.S.-based foreign labor and supply company Global Horizons were indicted in what the Department of Justice considered the biggest human trafficking case ever brought by the federal government. They were charged with holding 400 Thai guest farm workers in the United States against their will in conditions that essentially amounted to slavery.

The workers were given guest visas to work in the United States under the H-2A visa program. They were kept under brutal conditions under armed guard in Hawaii and forced to live in substandard conditions in hot shipping containers "with no carpet, beds, furniture, indoor plumbing, kitchen or air conditioning," according to federal investigators. They were under constant threat of violence from gun-toting guards, and on one occasion a guard told the workers they would be shot if they tried to escape.

Several company officials have already pleaded guilty in plea bargain deals and several others are expected to stand trial. In 2006, when the workers' maltreatment was discovered, the Department of Labor also debarred Global Horizons from participating in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program for the mandatory three years; it issued an additional three year debarment in 2009. Last week, a judge upheld the three year debarment after Global Horizons appealed it.

I don't know if you believe in the power of the modern government to regulate farms so that worker abuse doesn't happen. With our severely hampered and underfunded government, I absolutely do not. After all, what regulations in this country are properly followed? Food safety? Labor? Environmental? None of the above. Even under Democratic administrations, employers and polluters are in control of the regulatory process.

Moreover, our farms are in out of the way places. How many readers  have visited farms with migrant workers? Even among progressive groups, how many are active on these issues. There are some, such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the PCUN in Oregon (sadly, the UFW is basically defunct). But even these worker rights groups and unions are heavily underfunded, under reported in the press, and have virtually no power to stop farm employer abuses. 

Guestworker programs will lead to more abuses like this one in Hawaii. These must be opposed as part of any immigration legislation.