Revolution #48, May 28, 2006

The Brutal Reality of “Guest Worker” Programs

In his May 15 speech on immigrants, Bush promoted guest worker programs, which he said, will “meet the needs of our economy ... [and] would add to our security by making certain we know who is in our country and why they are here.” But what is the true nature of these kinds of programs? And what are the lives like of those who are “guest workers”?

For generations after a bloody Civil War officially ended slavery in the South, Black people toiled on plantations as sharecroppers and though they were technically “free,” landowners deliberately kept them in debt and forced them to continue working the land until the debt could be paid off—which was usually never.

Today, immigrant “guest workers” face similar conditions—crippling debt, dangerous and deadly work conditions, blatant theft of their wages, the stealing of their passports and documents, and the constant threat of being fired or being killed.

The Sacramento Bee wrote an extensive series of articles in December 2005 on the lives of guest workers working in forestry—the second-most dangerous job in the U.S, after mining. Workers told the Bee that once they got to the U.S, their passports and other legal papers were confiscated by their employers, making them afraid to even step out of their homes for fear of being picked up and deported. Many of them had arrived with an already heavy debt: they had to pay bribes of sometimes hundreds of dollars to “recruiters” for the U.S. contractors who hired them. One woman said she came to the U.S. when she was 16 years old with $5,000 in debt she had to work off.

Like the sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South, who had to pay for the tools they used and the seeds they planted, these “guest workers” had money taken out of their paychecks for visa fees, blankets, the tools they used, and transportation to their jobs. They were made to operate chainsaws without protective gear, and they told of helplessly watching coworkers being crushed by falling trees or gashing their legs with chainsaws. The companies deducted so much from their paychecks—one worker said he worked a 15-hour day and got a paycheck of $1.98, in a place where check-cashing places charged $2 to cash a check. These workers would have to get cash advances from the company—which just kept them in debt. One worker told the Bee that with each paycheck, “we would earn less and owe more...until we realized, ‘We’re never going to be able to pay this off.’” A story in USA Today about guest workers talked about one worker who entered the U.S. on a guest worker visa, and after a year of 10-hour workdays was $500 more in debt than when he started. This treatment of guest workers is not new: the Bracero Program of the 1940s and 1950s brought laborers from Latin America, put them to work in the fields in harsh conditions, and then stole money from their paychecks to attempt to make the workers return the next year—money which, 60 years later, has never been repaid.

This kind of abuse and exploitation is built into these “Guest worker” programs. Workers are required to keep working for the same employer that brought them here—which means if they complain in any way, they risk getting fired and then deported. And, as the Bee series makes clear, even when workers have complained, the government has rarely punished employers, even when workers have been killed or maimed on the job or on their way to work. Both the Bee series and the USA Today articles clearly show how workers routinely have their passports and visas stolen by their employers—so they are forced to continue working.

Bush's guest worker program is an attempt to regulate the influx of people who are driven to the U.S. in the first place because of the whole way imperialism has distorted Mexico's economy. This program is a plan for setting up even more apartheid-like conditions for immigrant workers, putting them even more into a caste-like position. And this plan will further facilitate increasing repression of immigrants. It will allow for easy tracking of immigrant workers. They will be required to register with Homeland Security. And they will be required to leave when their term is up—after they have been scapegoated, hounded, systematically discriminated and ruthlessly exploited.

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