Guest workers: Laborers or commodity?

  Mexican workers are people with “a good old-fashioned work ethic” who are “very friendly and easy to work with,” says, which guarantees the lowest prices around for Mexican workers, boasts that hiring them is “the most cost effective way of handling all your agricultural labor requirements.” Some companies, however, temper their advertising copy with a warning: Don’t expect Mexican workers to respect your property, understand you or compete for excellence. According to the “Understanding Mexican Workers” section of, employing Mexican workers requires a lot of patience.

These Web sites represent the brokers behind America’s dysfunctional temporary-labor system. For over 20 years, the federally run H-2 or guest-worker program has allowed employers to import seasonal workers from places like Mexico and Thailand, as long as there aren’t enough American citizens to fill the jobs. The special visas provided (H2A for farm work, H2B for non-agricultural work like landscaping, construction and service jobs in places like hotels or ski areas) are good for less than a year, and workers can only stay in the country at the behest of their sponsoring employer. If the worker is fired for any reason, or the company runs out of work, the special visa can’t be transferred to a job elsewhere. Instead, it’s immediately revoked.

In the past, employers, especially agricultural employers, have been reluctant to use the guest-worker system. It’s relatively expensive and prone to the inefficiencies inherent in shuffling paperwork between four state and federal agencies. Of the approximately 1.6 million agricultural workers, in 2007 only around 50,000 were legal guest-workers, according to the Department of Labor. Though no reliable statistics exist, most experts say that the vast majority of farmworkers are undocumented.

Obviously, the U.S. immigration system is in need of reform. The West’s reliance on a largely illegal workforce encourages the proliferation of illegal smuggling operations, which endanger average citizens as well as the migrants themselves. Federal policymakers have been fantastic at explaining the need for immigration reform, and totally inept at coming up with good solutions. Almost all recent proposals, even those suggested by progressives, insist on the necessity for a vastly expanded guest-worker program, as well as a sealed border and mandatory electronic verification of documents at the time of hire. But this is a mistake: The guest-worker program in both its present and proposed forms is a blight on our democracy and should be abolished.

The system is notorious for lousy work conditions, wage and hour abuses, and a failure to provide adequate housing and medical care. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center highlights many of the abuses. Despite existing laws designed to protect workers’ rights, regulation and monitoring is terribly limited. There are 6,700 businesses certified to employ H-2A workers; in 2004, the DOL conducted 89 investigations. State agencies have an even more dismal record. Furthermore, when abuse occurs, temporary workers have limited power to enforce the terms of their agreements in federal court. Under the terms of their visas, H-2B workers, whether in agriculture or the service industry, have no access to federally funded legal services. In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, the Bush administration has offered up some questionable “reforms” of its own for the H-2A program. But its changes would actually lower wages in many parts of the country, ease labor protection and housing standards, and erode some monitoring and enforcement. The Department of Labor, which is currently reviewing the more than 12,000 comments it received this past spring, says the new version of the rule published in the Federal Register by the end of the year.

In the meantime, states are creating their own guest-worker programs. Arizona is considering a bill that would transfer most of the responsibilities of the federal H2 program to state authority, pledging to reduce bureaucratic red tape. If employees disappear, for example, employers would have to report them to the state agency in charge of the program; the employees’ visas would then be immediately revoked, making them deportable. Already, Arizona legislators have received calls from politicians in Oregon and Colorado who want to pass similar bills next year. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is urging legislators in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico to draft legislation in 2009 for an interstate guest-worker program. The lobbyists say it would be a good way to pool resources and create regional flexibility.

But giving states the authority to oversee foreign workers is probably illegal: Immigration falls under federal jurisdiction. Even if states took over visa administration, the Department of Homeland Security would still need to conduct mandatory background checks to screen out criminals and terrorists. Despite the fact that state legislators and lobbyists know there’s a good chance their laws might not be upheld, they see their efforts as a way to push the issue at the federal level.

“We’ve been waiting for Congress to act on a comprehensive immigration bill,” says Arizona state Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D, who authored her state’s temporary worker bill. “This is critical to our economy. Arizona needs the workers; we’re forcing Congress to do something.”

Arizona’s desire to avoid a labor shortage is understandable. But the current system -- importing foreign workers who are denied the rights of legal citizens -- comes dangerously close to indentured servitude. When a worker’s visa is tied to a specific employer, that worker loses all power to stick up for herself. The current system makes it especially hard for poor people who don’t speak English. These people can’t vote; they’re hard-pressed to even make themselves heard. If they speak up about abuses, they’re likely to be deported. The United States tried this kind of thing before, mixing citizens and non-citizens; it didn’t work out very well. For too many years, certain classes of people -- slaves, women, non-property owners -- were denied their rights and not allowed to vote. Our nation has spent the past 200 years on a march toward increased equality. Guest-workers, treated at times more like slaves than like guests, subtract from such progress.

“This is a huge step backwards,” says John Bowe, author of Nobodies, a clear-eyed look at modern labor in America. At the very least, Bowe says, guest-workers should be allowed to travel between employers. “If you admit human beings into your social system without giving them adequate protection, they’re going to be abused. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when and how bad.”

A Portland-based journalist, Rebecca Clarrenwrites about the environment and labor issues for various national magazines.
Jun 13, 2008 02:51 PM

Why are these politicians and farmers opting for an official guest-worker program when the federal government already has on?. It's called the H-2A visa program designed for U.S. companies hiring foreign workers to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Why do they want to set-up shop in Mexico? Here there are very few workers laws, safety measures and they can exploit the poor, cheap labor.

However in this nation this program has a number of advantages for employers, most notably the assurance of a legal, documented work force and the reduction of labor turnover with the resulting loss in productivity. No restrictions are made on the number of H-2A workers that are admitted yearly.

So why don't farmers like the program?

Maybe it's because they don't like the H-2A visa requirements intended to protect workers from exploitive working conditions. Or they don't like having to pay the same wages as comparable U.S. workers would have to be paid as determined by the Department of Labor.

Or they don't like having to provide the laborer with an earnings statement detailing the worker's total earnings, the hours of work offered and the hours actually worked. That they don't like having to provide housing to all H-2A workers, which must be inspected by the Department of Labor to assure minimum federal standards.

Or they don't like having to provide transportation to and from the guest worker's temporary home (if it's made available) as well as transportation to the next work place when the contract is fulfilled. Or they don't care want to provide meals or facilities in which the workers can prepare food. Or they don't like having to provide worker's compensation insurance, nor do they have to provide health insurance. The taxpayers provide that as a free-be to pariah employers.

If farmers had to comply with the federally mandated requirements, it would defeat the advantages of hiring cheap illegal immigrant labor in the first place. What farmers really want is to legalize the on-demand hiring of the same cheap labor they have always hired, with the taxpayers footing the bill for workers' benefits like schooling for their young, including free meals under title 1. Free student books and other complimentary hand-outs, including free health care. Not forgetting that low wage earners can apply for food stamps, subsidized housing, baby sitters for their toddlers and many other benefits on the taxpayers dime.

That is why some politicians like Grijalva push for the H-2A visa program? Could it be that they want "temporary" to really be "permanent" — advocating that in return for the "cheap" lettuce produced, temporary workers and their families deserve a path to permanent U.S. citizenship? Is this a way around immigration enforcement, like the federal SAVE ACT now pending in Congress. The simple question is, are the tomatoes, grapes or even lettuce cheaper? No! Not when you realize the massive cost to US taxpayers. Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization, said U.S. taxpayers paid more than $9,000 for each immigrant in the country, a third of whom are believed to be in the U.S. illegally.

In addition, more than 37 million immigrants in the United States, both legal and illegal, cost the federal government more than $346 billion last year, twice as much as the nation's fiscal deficit, according to a report released yesterday. The loss estimates, the report said, included $100 billion in federal taxes lost "from the reduction of native incomes caused by immigrant workers." He also stated that even programs that are not usually associated with immigration, he said, have actually added financial burdens to the taxpayers.

What is certain is that neither the farmers nor the lawmakers are really interested in what is good for America — and the U.S. citizen worker is in this nation. They have become the puppets of the special interest lobby.

We desperately need a federal mandated law such as the SAVE ACT (H.R.4088), so we can seal our borders, and fully restrict illegal immigration within the interior of America as well.

Jun 17, 2008 11:03 AM

This is a very good article, and follow up commentary. The government's expansionist immigration policy is now detrimental to the economy; in this new century, the better policy is to optimize the American workforce.

The commentor is correct about removing temporary worker protections and compensation, the AGJOBS bill seems to be written to eliminate travel and housing expenses (along with providing a huge influx of temporary and permanent workers) from the H-2A program. The temporary worker must be required to maintain a foreign residence and paid a per diem to offset housing and travel expenses. 

One very real problem with temporary worker programs occurrs when the U.S. economy contracts. During economic contractions, guest worker programs absorb a major portion of that year's employment growth.

 Temporary worker programs are usually measured by the number of workers, if those workers are multiplied by the number of work-years authorized, the portion of total employment growth reserved for temporary workers becomes alarming.

Growth in employment is taken from the BLS publication:

Series Id: LNU02000000
Not Seasonally Adjusted
Series title: (Unadj) Employment Level
Labor force status: Employed

2002 = (-448,000)
2003 = 1,251,000
2004 = 1,516,000
2005 = 2,478,000
2006 = 2,697,000
2007 = 1,620,000


 Initial work authorizations for temporary workers in years.
(Number of visas multiplied by initial duration of visa)

2003 = 810,999 (65% of same year employment growth)
2004 = 908,487 (60% of same year employment growth)
2005 = 897,848 (36% of same year employment growth)
2006 = 991,137 (37% of same year employment growth)
2007 = 1,128,142
(70% of same year employment growth)

Initial work authorizations with single renewal for temporary workers in years.
(Number of visas multiplied by initial duration plus renewal duration of visa)

2003 = 1,425,163 (114% of same year employment growth)
2004 = 1,622,802 (107% of same year employment growth)
2005 = 1,595,185 (64% of same year employment growth)
2006 = 1,710,500 (63% of same year employment growth)
2007 = 1,923,835 (119% of same year employment growth)

Jun 27, 2008 12:52 PM

As usual, an ignornat open-borders editorial by the usual ignorant open-borders HCN. Disguisting. as usual!!!!!