Getting Our Work Done: Migrant and Guest Workers in the United States

Getting Our Work Done:
Migrant and Guest Workers in the United States

Presented by Edith Rasell, Ph.D., Minister for Economic Justice
United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries at the
World Council of Churches North American Hearings on Poverty, Wealth & Ecology
Calgary, Alberta; November 6-11, 2011 

The U.S. is the largest immigrant-receiving nation in the world.[2] Most immigrants come to work. But the U.S. has very weak and poorly enforced labor protections, even for native-born workers, and immigrants are particularly at risk. Systemic abuses abound in all phases of the immigrant worker experience: in the recruitment of guest workers, during entry into the U.S., and in the workplace.

Many people in the U.S. have a conflicted relationship with immigrants. While most of us are descendants of immigrants and recognize their enormous contributions to society, we may also worry, unnecessarily, about the impact of immigrants on our jobs, culture, and safety. We fail to realize that our welfare is linked to the welfare of our immigrant sisters and brothers. Inadequate workplace protections impact all of us. Degrading jobs to the point that “no American will take” them harms us all. Economic policies imposed by the North – and the U.S., in particular – on countries around the world destroy liveli-hoods, drive “forced” migration, and benefit corporations while hurting workers in the U.S. and worldwide. We might view immigrants as a canary in the coal mine; their suffering signals grave danger for all of us.  Their workplace exploitation is a sign that we must act.

In 2010, there were 24 million foreign-born workers in the US, 15.6% of the labor force. Some 8.2 million lacked authorization to work. See the chart. 

International law and decisions of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights have found that immigrants, including those without authorization to work, possess the same labor rights as other workers. The state is obligated to protect and guarantee these rights.[3] But this is not happening in the U.S. The Supreme Court and various state courts have excluded undocumented workers from employment rights and remedies available to their documented counterparts, for example, by reducing the penalties employers face in violating the right to organize.[4] Some categories of guest workers are excluded from the main federal protective statute for farm workers.[5] Some states have further limited the rights of undocumented workers by, for example, limiting or eliminating basic workplace protections such as the right to form a union, access to compensation for workplace injuries, and freedom from workplace discrimination.[6]

While any immigrant worker may be treated unfairly in the workplace, this paper’s focus is the systemic exploitation of those without authorization to work and guest workers.

Unauthorized workers

Unauthorized workers are concentrated in low-wage occupations, especially agriculture (25% overall are undocumented; 70-90% of farm workers are undocumented), grounds-keeping/maintenance (19%), construction (17%), and food preparation and serving (12%).[7] Lacking even the weak protections afforded other U.S. workers, unauthorized immigrants may be subjected to hazardous work conditions; suffer from wage theft, the failure of employers to pay legally required wages; be denied the right to form a union; or face retaliation by employers – such as notifying immigration authorities of their unauthorized status – if they complain or make efforts to improve their conditions.[8]

Farm Workers – Most of the 3 million farm workers in the U.S. who do the labor-intensive work of growing, tending, and harvesting food crops are foreign-born and poor. Many lack authorization to work.[9] They face harsh working conditions, little respect, very low pay, piece-rate wages, exposure to pesticides, rural isolation, and substandard housing. Farm workers, both immigrant and native born, are outside the coverage of some core labor statutes and lack basic labor protections. For example, they do not receive overtime pay or have the protected right to form a union, and child labor protections are relaxed. Workers on farms employing fewer than seven workers in a three-month period lack even minimum wage protections.

Guest Workers

There are numerous guest worker programs including the H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-agricultural workers. These programs impose on foreign workers a temporary, non-immigrant status that ties them to a particular employer and makes their ability to obtain and retain a visa dependent on remaining in the good graces of their employer.[10] In extreme cases, workers find themselves in situations of indentured servitude or forced labor. Some recruiters illegally require potential guest workers to pay them large sums of money or sign over deeds to property. These debts and obligations can also lead to conditions of forced labor. The lack of visa portability that ties a worker’s status in the U.S. directly to an employer, combined with exploitation in recruitment and subcontracting, leave workers in extremely vulnerable situations. In 2010, the H-2A and H-2B programs brought in 56 and 47 thousand workers, respectively.[11]

The Future

In the U.S., there are “good jobs” with living wages; benefits like paid sick leave, health insurance and a retirement plan; and a union or some degree of respect and fair treatment. There are also many other jobs. The worse of these – with low wages; harsh, even dangerous, working conditions; rampant violations of already weak labor protections; and where little dignity is afforded to workers – are often where undocumented and guest workers are employed.

Employers claim there are some jobs that “Americans” won’t do. More accurately, there are some jobs so bad that no one should accept them, and no one would unless forced to do so by extreme poverty or dire necessity. But so long as immigrants are forced to leave their homes and seek money in the North, then these jobs will be filled.

Consider the meat packing industry. These jobs are inherently dirty and unpleasant. But in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1980s, meat packing workers were typically members of a union and received good pay and benefits, similar to those in the auto and steel industries. But after multiple companies broke their unions and embarked on strict cost-cutting strategies, wages fell, benefits disappeared, working conditions deteriorated, and injury rates soared. The use of immigrant workers rose dramatically. Middle-class “good jobs” in meatpacking became jobs that “no American will do.”

The degradation of jobs, made possible by the availability of unprotected and easily-exploited immigrant labor, is hurting all workers, native- and foreign-born. Taking the high road toward good jobs for all would require stronger labor protections, vigorous enforcement, and meaningful penalties for violations. It would also require a different, more democratic strategy for global integration, one that did not advantage corporations over workers and the environment.

But the U.S. appears headed in another direction. With an increase in deportations and efforts to rid the nation’s workplaces of unauthorized workers, a labor shortage is developing in some occupations. One solution being explored is a new expanded guest worker program. While current programs provide inadequate protections for immigrants and U.S.-born workers, two proposals introduced in Congress are even worse.[12] Among other provisions, they would reduce wages, require guest workers to pay their own housing and transportation costs, and/or shift oversight of the program from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture, an agency even less able to do this effectively.  

The wealthy North relies on poor workers from the South to provide us with essential goods and services. Yet we fail to pay these workers fairly, keep them safe, and treat them with respect. We violate the tenets of our faith: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Ex. 22:21). May God give us ears to hear the cries of immigrants and the courage to change our laws and practices.



Endnotes

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, “Foreign-born workers: labor force characteristics —2010” May 27, 2011. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/forbrn.pdf   Accessed November 4, 2011. For general population: Census Bureau, Tables 1.1 and 1.6.  http://www.census.gov/population/foreign/data/cps2010.html Accessed November 5, 2011.  Pew Hispanic  Center, Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants  http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/107.pdf 

[2] International Organization for Migration.  http://www.iom.int/jahia/Jahia/about-migration/facts-and-figures/americas-facts-and-figures   The US has 20% of the world’s international migrants.

[3] Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Albany Chapter; Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.; et al., Migrant Labor Rights: Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, Ninth Session of the Working Group on the UPR, Human Rights Council, Meeting 22 November – 3 December 2010.  Accessed November 3, 2011. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Justice/2010/LR-UniversalPeriodicReview.pdf?nocdn=1   

[4] Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board.

[5] Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Albany Chapter; Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.; et al., Migrant Labor Rights: Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, Ninth Session of the Working Group on the UPR, Human Rights Council, Meeting 22 November – 3 December 2010.  Accessed November 3, 2011. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Justice/2010/LR-UniversalPeriodicReview.pdf?nocdn=1   

[6] Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Albany Chapter; Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.; et al., Migrant Labor Rights: Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, Ninth Session of the Working Group on the UPR, Human Rights Council, Meeting 22 November – 3 December 2010.  Accessed November 3, 2011. http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Justice/2010/LR-UniversalPeriodicReview.pdf?nocdn=1

[7] Pew Hispanic  Center, Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants, Figure 5.   http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/107.pdf 

[8] Ray Marshall, Value Added Immigration, Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute. http://www.epi.org/publication/value-added-immigration/

[10] Ray Marshall, Value Added Immigration, Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute.       http://www.epi.org/publication/value-added-immigration/

[11] U.S. Department of State, Classes of Nonimmigrants Issued Visas (Detailed Breakdown), Fiscal Years 2006 - 2010

http://www.travel.state.gov/pdf/NIVClassIssued-DetailedFY2006-2010.pdf

[12] LA Times, Ganging up on guest workers, September 23, 2011.  http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/23/opinion/la-ed-guestworkers-20110923

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CONTACT INFO

Ms. Edith Rasell, Ph.D.
Minister for Economic Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
216-736-3709
raselle@ucc.org