Hispanic farmworkers harvest Ranunculus bulbs at the Flower Fields, Friday, March 23, 2007 in Carlsbad, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Report: Federal guestworker program rife with civil rights violations

As Congress moves toward developing a new plan for immigration reform, one group says that lawmakers should not use the current guestworker program as a model because it is rife with civil rights violations.

According to a new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the current  federal guestworker program systematically exploits workers and violates their human and civil rights. The report says that guestworkers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to live in poor conditions, denied medical benefits for on the job injuries, subjected to accumulating large debt just to get their low-wage and temporary job, and deprived of their documents, which are often seized by their employers.

“These abuses typically start before workers have even arrived in the United States and continue throughout their employment in the United States,” Mary Bauer, Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a conference call. “The report documents that these abuses are not the product of a few bad apple employers but it is the very structure of the program that lends itself to abuse.”

Such was the case for Franco, a former guest worker who spoke about his experience on the Southern Poverty Law Center conference call. Franco used a pseudonym and did not name his employer in order to protect his identity.

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He came to the United States from Guatemala in order to earn and save money to continue his education back home. But his experience did not match his expectations. He was saddled with debt before even leaving his hometown, paying 2000 dollars in fees to the job recruiter who hired him and in airfare that should have been reimbursed.

“The company should have reimbursed me but they didn’t,” Franco recalls.

The company also hired outside work, contracting a group that had machinery and leaving the guestworkers little to do. Still, though they had little work, Franco says that they were prohibited from leaving the farm or being allowed to work with another employer.

“The employer took our passports, licenses, all of our documents,” he says. “All of the workers insisted on having their documents back so they could confirm their expiration and extension dates. But they never gave them back to us until a few days before our visa expired.”

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According to Franco, many of his fellow guestworkers were not able to plan and save properly because they were unaware of how much time was left on their visa. He says many of those without the money are still in the U.S. trying to figure out what to do.

Under the current H-2 guestworker program run by the Department of Labor, Franco is one of the 106,000 guestworkers in the country in 2011. Approximately 55,000 work in agricultural jobs and 51,000 work in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, and other non-agricultural industries.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, feels that the guestworker program has received far less attention than the issue deserves, citing the most recent plan put forth by a bipartisan group of Senators.

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“The section on admission of new workers was shorter on details than any other, even though it was one of the programs that derailed the conversation in 2007,” Henderson says.

The bipartisan Senate group has included provisions in their plan that would allow employers to hire immigrants if they could show they couldn’t find an American for the job. During times of low unemployment, more immigrants would be allowed in and fewer when unemployment is high. Bauer says that before Congress and the White House propose a continuation of the current policies, they should act to improve the current state of guestworker programs.

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“The heart of the problem is the enormous debt workers have to take on to get the job,” Bauer says. She proposes that recruitment of workers must be regulated so that workers are not taking on debt.

“Workers should be free to shop their labor where they choose and have the right to walk away and get another job.”

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