Revolution #83 Online Edition


New Report from Southern Poverty Law Center

Immigrant Workers: “Close to Slavery”

“Twelve Guatemalan guestworkers claim they were held captive by agents for Imperial Nurseries, one of the nation's largest wholesalers of plants and shrubs. The men had been recruited to plant pines in North Carolina, but after they arrived in the state, they were transported by van to Connecticut and forced to work nearly 80 hours a week in nursery fields. They were housed in a filthy apartment without beds, and instead of the $7.50 an hour they were promised, they earned what amounted to $3.75 an hour before deductions for telephone service and other costs.”

from “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States”
a report produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center

Under the U.S. government's so-called “guest worker” programs, a controlled number of workers from other countries are permitted to enter the U.S. legally for a short period of time. These workers are not allowed to settle in the U.S.—they cannot bring their families, and they can not get documents like driver's licenses. As part of the moves to tighten control over immigration and hike up repressive measures in society overall, major voices in the ruling class are advocating the expansion of the guest worker programs while cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Last May, for example, Bush said that the guest worker programs 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.”

The brutal reality of these programs was exposed in a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), titled “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.” (The report is available online at The title of the report speaks to the slave-like conditions faced by these workers.

Chained to Their Employers

“Close to Slavery” estimates that an estimated 121,000 guest workers were brought into the U.S. in 2005 for work that is categorized as “unskilled.” Of this number, about 32,000 worked in agriculture, and the rest—approximately 89,000—worked in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction, and other non-agricultural industries.

Under the guest worker program, officially called the H-2 program (there is another type of visa, H-1, for workers categorized as “skilled”), workers are only permitted to enter the U.S. as an employee of whatever company or contractor brought them here. They face immediate deportation if they stop working for that employer for whatever reason: if they quit, are fired, or are injured and unable to work. Technically, there are two kinds of visas that guest workers can get: H-2A visas, which are for agricultural work and supposedly grant more legal rights and recourse to the workers than H-2B visas, for non-agricultural work – but these distinctions are often meaningless.

Employers are increasingly relying on recruiters and agents to supply them with guest workers, and they can actually go to sites like or to “shop” for workers. One site advertises Mexican workers as "people with a strong work ethic" and "happy, agreeable people who we like a lot."

Recruiters—who are typically contracted by American companies—go all over Latin America to sign up workers with the promise of jobs in the U.S. By the time the guest workers arrive in the U.S., many have gone thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars into debt in order to pay the recruiters, for what the SPLC report describes as sometimes less than one year's worth of work. Many workers have to turn to loan sharks in order to come up with the agent's fee, and in turn they can get smacked with very high interest rates. Sometimes the families of the guest workers have had to turn over the deeds to their homes as collateral on the huge debts the workers incurred; and if the workers quit their jobs in the U.S., they have to pay an additional fee to get the deed back.

This debt and the special H-2 status effectively keep the guest workers chained to their employers. If they complain or want to find another job, the employer can “blacklist” them from work for any other H-2 employer, or simply threaten them with deportation.

Interviewed by the radio program Democracy Now! on March 15, Mary Bauer, the author of the “Close to Slavery” report, said:

“What we found is that the guestworker program leads to the abuse and exploitation of workers, not because there are a few bad-apple employers, but because the structure of the system itself leads to abuse. The fact that workers pay enormous sums of money and come to the United States with crushing debt and the fact that they are then tied to one employer—they can legally work only for the employer who filed the petition for them—the structure of that system leads to those workers being systematically exploited on the job.”

Bauer also made an important point about the U.S. government's “bracero” program from 1942 to 1964, under which millions of Mexicans were brought into the U.S. as temporary contract labor to work the fields. Bauer notes that while the bracero program is now broadly seen as a “human rights disaster,” it actually had written into it “very strong labor protection.” But, Bauer points out, “The problem was that in reality the structure of the system there led to the same kind of abuses that we’re seeing… If we think as a society that the bracero program is universally condemned as having been a failure, there is no reason to believe that our current system in practice is any different. And there’s no particular reason to believe that future programs would be any different.”

Under Constant Threat of Deportation

The SPLC report quotes Otto Rafael Boton-Gonzalez from Guatemala, a forestry worker: "When the supervisor would see that a person was ready to leave the job because the pay was so bad, he would take our papers from us. He would rip up our visa and say, 'You don't want to work? Get out of here then. You don't want to work? Right now I will call immigration to take your papers and deport you.'"

Juan, also a forestry worker, says in the report: "The boss took our passports and kept them. He took them as soon as we arrived from Mexico. We would ask for them and he would always say no. When we got paid, we would want to go cash our pay checks. The boss would say, 'Go talk to the driver and he'll change them for you.' They would not give us our passports to cash our pay checks. They would say that the higher company office ordered them to do this.”

According to “Close to Slavery,” such confiscation of passports is routine. In some cases, the employers actually destroyed the workers' passports, effectively turning them into “illegal” workers on the spot. Guest workers often find that various “fees” have been deducted from their pay checks—for telephone service, tools they used, transportation to work, and so on.

There are many more ways that workers are robbed and kept in debt. The report says that many times, workers find that the 40 or more hours a week of work they were promised suddenly became 25 hours. Or they were forced to do piece work. In forestry, for example, the workers are paid by how many seedlings they plant per day. The workers are paid $15 to $30 per 1,000-seedling bag; at the average rate of 1,500 trees per day, workers earn between $22.50 and $45 for up to 12 hours of work. Escolastico De Leon-Granados, a worker from Guatemala, told the SPLC that he typically made $25 for a 13-hour work day, or $1.92 an hour.

Trapped in Dangerous Jobs

Guest workers are concentrated in some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.—such as forestry, the second most dangerous job after mining, and agriculture. According to the SPLC report, fatality rates for workers in forestry and agriculture are 10 times the national average.

Guest workers who are injured on the job are supposedly entitled to workers' compensation. But often the workers are not told this. Even if they overcame their fear of being fired and immediately deported and pressed a workers' comp claim, they face all kinds of obstacles. In some states workers are only allowed to collect benefits while still in the state where the injury took place, or they have their payments cut off when they have to leave the U.S.

There's a stark similarity between what today's immigrant guest workers face and the experience of Black people as sharecroppers after the Civil War and the end of slavery in the South. Although sharecroppers were technically “free,” the landowners deliberately kept them in debt and forced them to continue working the land. The sharecroppers had to pay for the tools they used and the seeds they planted, and were regularly cheated out of the money they were due for the crops they raised. The immigrant guest workers face crippling debt, deadly work conditions, blatant theft of wages, and the constant threat of being fired.

Women: Harassed and Raped

Women guest workers also face oppression as women. The SPLC report notes: “Numerous women have reported concerns about severe sexual harassment on the job. There have been no studies that quantify this problem among guestworkers. However, in a 1993 survey of farmworker women in California, more than 90 percent reported that sexual harassment was a major problem on the job.”

The SPLC refers to a 1995 visit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to fields in Fresno, California. Farmworkers called one company's fields el fil de calzon—“the field of panties”—because so many of the women who picked the crops there were raped by their foremen in the endless rows. An EEOC attorney involved in the visit said, "We were told that hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors."

The SPLC recounts the story of one guest worker from Mexico: “She came to the United States with an H-2B visa to process crabs. She knew from past work that men always process oysters and women always process crabs. And the men are paid higher wages than the women. One year Martina was brought in to work during oyster season. When she arrived at the airport, she was met by the plant manager who made it clear that she had been hired to be his mistress.”

Hijacked and Threatened

Hernan was one of a group of six Mexican workers who came to the U.S. in September 2006 as guest workers. They had been contracted to work in the forestry industry in Arkansas. Their employer took their passports and visas to "make copies" and kept them. But they were taken to Louisiana, not Arkansas, and left to live in an abandoned two-story house with no door on the hinges and no glass, except for a few broken shards, in the windows. They were paid $70 for two weeks of work, 12 hours a day, picking sweet potatoes. When they began to complain, the contractor demanded $1,600 for the return of their passports. Since they couldn't pay, they fled without their wages or their passports. The contractor then called the workers' wives in Mexico, threatening that if they did not come up with $2,000, the men would be reported to immigration.

The SPLC report cites a lawsuit filed in North Carolina on behalf of a group of Thai workers who paid $11,000 each for a three-year contract working in the fields. When they arrived, the contractor took their passports, visas, and return plane tickets. After two months, some of the workers were taken to New Orleans to do post-Hurricane Katrina cleanup. They had to live in hotels damaged by the storm; one was filled with mold and had no electricity or hot water. They had to use the filthy (and possibly toxic) contaminated water for cooking. The report states that “the workers were guarded by a man with a gun. They also were not paid for the work, so they had no money to buy food. Some were eventually taken back to North Carolina. The men who remained in New Orleans managed to escape with the help of local people who learned of their plight.”

“We Have Been Treated Like Animals”

The horrific conditions faced by hundreds of guest workers from India, working at a shipyard in Mississippi, recently came to light because the workers decided to protest. A March 11 statement from the workers said in part:

“We are more than 300 Indian workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi. We came here from different parts of India with 'H2B visas' to work as welders and fitters… We paid $15,000 to $20,000 to come to the United States. We paid this money to a U.S. lawyer working on behalf of the company and to Indian recruiters. We have proof of this payment. For some of us, this is a lifetime of earnings in India. We all sold our property and our houses to come and work for Signal.

“We have been treated like animals here. We have been threatened with termination and salary reduction. We are living in isolation. Visitors are not allowed in the camps. We live 24 men in one container, with two bathrooms for all of us. We cannot make any complaints to the company.”

The company raided the workers' quarters and locked six of them in a room, threatening to deport them back to India immediately. One desperate worker, who had sold all his possessions to get the guest worker visa to come to the U.S., attempted suicide by slitting his wrists.

* * * *

The fact that expansion of the guest worker programs is a key part of the immigration “reforms” being pushed by the leaders of both ruling class parties, Republicans and Democrats, points to the repressive nature of those proposals. These rulers and their system needs the millions of immigrants who are forced to work for desperation wages, but they also want to bring immigrants under much tighter control. By expanding the guest worker programs, these rulers aim to keep immigrants in a caste-like status, oppressed in special ways without rights—in conditions “close to slavery.”

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