US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Foreign guest workers get new protections

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The various guest worker programs are a small part of the immigration “problem,” but a very significant one. Much of undocumented migration comes because employers often skirt the law and recruit and hire cheaper, undocumented laborers rather than go through government programs. It’s less hassle and gives the employer more control over workers. It’s also a field that replete with abuse. I cut my baby teeth on the issue in the 1960s. We were agitating to end the Bracero program—a World War II effort to recruit Mexican farm laborers to feed America. After the war, it lingered on—even grew—with much abuse of the workers. It was ender in 1965 and replace by the H-1A visa program administered by the Agricultural Department.

A companion program was established for non-agricultural workers—the H-2B visa. This applied to “low-skilled” workers such as in hotels, restaurants, resorts and amusement parks, the seafood industry, small manufacturing, landscaping, and the like. The jobs were suppose to be advertised and offered to American workers first, were mostly seasonal, and only temporary. Workers were expected to return home at the end of the contract, but would be expected back the next year. As with agricultural workers, the administration of the law was spotty. First, the effort to recruit American workers was often not made in earnest. Native workers are wont to complain—a luxury for foreign workers whose visas depend on the grace their employer. Though subject to supervision by the Labor Department (DOL) for housing, wages, and hours, there were many abuses. Somewhat common was the failure to pay the workers overtime. Also employers used foreign recruiters to collect workers, making the workers pay a fee. Also they would be required to pay their own ways to and from the job. Employers had their own complaints, especially thanks to bureaucratic delays and the burden to look for U.S. workers for jobs when everyone knew none would apply.

Just this last week DOL published new rules that are to go into effect April 23. They are meant to streamline the hiring and to protect the rights of the workers. Worker and immigrant activists welcomed the new regulations, while employers were generally wary. To facilitate hiring, DOL establishes a nationwide electronic registry were employers post the jobs. Employers, however, face a longer recruitment period and must make a greater effort to hire U.S. workers first. Labor laws, especially regarding wages and hours, will be more stringently enforced. Workers have long complained that they were given substandard housing and food, cheated on wages and made to work overtime without extra pay. They even had to pay for travel to and from the job. These travel expenses will now be picked up by the employer. Another abuse outlawed will be paying fee to foreign recruiters to get job and visa.

These changes are welcomed. It will be fair for the worker. But more reform of the guest worker programs will have to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform. Some work toward that end has already been done for agricultural workers—the so call AgJobs Bill that was worked out between the ag-unions and ag-business. But it languishes Congress because of the larger impasse over comprehensive reform. Still worker advocatse are pleased the new rules and feel they would help guest workers.