Guest Workers in the U.S.

    The United States offers a variety of guest worker visas employers use to fill jobs that they cannot find American workers to do. The purpose is to help the U.S. economy by making available needed labor that cannot otherwise be found. The H-1b visa is for foreigners with advanced expertise- this visa class is often used for workers in Silicon Valley. The H-2A visa is for temporary agricultural workers, and the H-2 is for other temporary or seasonal workers. These can be workers at summer camps, ski resorts, summer carnivals, and so on.

    In order to make sure these foreign visa recipients are not taking jobs from Americans, the prospective employer must first go through a detailed procedure to demonstrate that local workers are unavailable and then apply for the visa. The foreign worker is then only allowed to work for the employer that sponsored the visa. The guest worker cannot apply for other jobs while in the Unites States and when their employment relationship ends must immediately leave the country.

    Foreign workers are attracted to this program for several reasons. For some it’s a chance to travel to the United States and have a travel experience for a few months. For others there are no employment opportunities in their own country so it’s their best way to earn and save up money.

    However, there are numerous problems. Once in the United States, workers are completely dependent on their employer. While they can quit if they want to, they will then need to leave the country. Transportation to and from the home country is the employer’s responsibility, but if the worker quits before half their employment term the employer is no longer obligated to pay their way back. Quitting the job may be especially difficult for H-1b workers since this visa leads to eligibility for a green card and eventual U.S. citizenship. Quitting on their employer at any point in the process means giving up on that.

    Employers often provide these foreign workers (particularly unskilled workers on H-2 visas) with living conditions far below what they were promised and working conditions much more onerous than had been described. While a U.S. citizen worker could simply look for another job, for these foreign workers that’s not an option. They must either acquiesce or transport themselves back to their home country.

    Employers may also take advantage of the guest workers in other ways. Some employers have been reported to withhold workers’ passports to prevent them from attempting to return home, or even to prevent them from leaving the work premises out of fear of arrest since they would have no identification documents. Employers are also accused of withholding wages and underpaying the workers. Many of these unskilled workers are in remote or constantly changing locations where there is little threat of government inspection, and the U.S. department of labor has limited resources to enforce labor laws as they pertain to these workers in any case.

    So in practice many guest workers are brought to the United States where they live in substandard condition, are paid extremely low wages, are unable to leave, and every aspect of their lives is under the control of their employer. This seems similar to slavery. As The U.S. struggles with immigration reform, how should the guest worker program be changed?

Learn More

‘Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States’- an extensive examination of this issue by the Southern Poverty Law Center

An examination by Medium of the legal tricks and loopholes that allow employers to keep guest workers in slave like conditions

An article in the Atlantic magazine titled ‘How U.S. Immigration Law Enables Modern Slavery.’

An investigation into migrant workers forced to work in the U.S. seafood industry from the Guardian.

An editorial in the NY Times about why guest workers are easily exploited.

Human Rights Haggadah Blog