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Know the West

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 www.mexican-workers.com. Labormex.com, 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 Mexican-workers.com, 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.