A New Door for Guestworkers?

Michelle Chen

Questions remains about whether the new W-visa program will properly protect workers. (Photo courtesy of the NGA).

The perennial impasse in the immigration debate between labor and business seems to be fading as a group of senators, working with industry and union lobbies, irons out a framework that would bring more migrants into the labor force, purportedly under a system that extends rights and protections for so-called guestworkers.” But what the new system really means for workers depends on how it is implemented and regulated, and who is controlling the gates.

The proposed W-visa plan reportedly strikes a compromise between business’s desire for low-cost labor and union concerns (represented by the AFL-CIO in Washington) about maintaining jobs for U.S. workers and enforcing wage-and-hour laws. Aimed at less-skilled sectors like restaurant work, the W-visa would differ from previous employment-based visas in two key ways. For one, it would offer immigrants a way to petition for residency and eventually attain citizenship. And unlike much maligned temporary-worker programs, the visa would be portable,” meaning it would not be tied to a specific workplace or employer. In theory, that would allow a worker to switch jobs without jeopardizing her legal status.

Addressing fears of creating a second tier,” or minimally regulated low-wage workforce, the compromise reportedly ensures that employers pay no less than the industry’s standard prevailing wage,” determined according to labor market conditions. The New York Times reports:

Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.

The number of visas issued would start at 20,000 in the first year, then rise incrementally each year to reach 75,000 after four years. The cap could then be readjusted according to labor market and economic conditions, under the direction of a data driven” research bureau run by immigration authorities. The current plan sets an annual maximum of 200,000 visas.

Though the details are still murky, the W-visa appears to grant workers more freedom and mobility than they would have under conventional, time-restricted visa programs. Rebecca Smith, an attorney with the advocacy group National Employment Law Project tells Working In These Times:

The breakthrough ideas are that workers have the right to bring their families, change employers and self-petition for permanent status, and they enter the U.S. with full labor rights. These rights and working conditions go a long way toward helping workers to stand up for their rights, to organize, or to join a union and avoid some of the most dire human rights abuses we have seen in existing temporary programs.

The W-visa is being advanced at the same time that lawmakers are revisiting the H-2A agricultural visa, a prime example of how guestworker arrangements abet virtual serfdom. Known for pulling people into exploitative, grueling jobs, the system is so poorly regulated, half or more migrant farmworkers are said to be undocumented.

Daniel Costa, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, says the W-visa, which aims to tighten regulation of labor recruitment and stabilize migration flows, could be a model for rationalizing labor visa policies:

The W-visa is not really a guestworker program, it’s a quasi-immigrant program, since workers enter the country with provisional visas that can quickly turn into green cards. It can set a higher bar for foreign worker programs, and if it works well, once it’s juxtaposed with the other exploitative programs, will hopefully create some political momentum for reforming other programs.

Still, despite efforts to institute an orderly, less politicized framework, the W-visa’s implementation is a product of compromises between mainstream unions and employers, who could press to expand or close the valve according to political and economic pressures. (Already, the W-Visa job categories specifically carve-out certain higher-skill construction trades, reflecting concerns about undercutting union jobs.)

In the future, employers would presumably keep pushing for expanded labor importation. Meanwhile public anxieties about job competition or demographic change would fuel pressure to restrict migration or impose harsh, constitutionally questionable enforcement policies. These factors all tie into capitalist markets and a volatile, often xenophobic political arena. So under a”reformed” system, anchored in business and political maneuvering, will immigrant families and communities have a voice? Will anyone broaden the discussion to upholding human rights in tandem with, or in spite of, brute economic forces? As reform moves forward, given the historical reactionary tendencies of both industry and some mainstream unions on immigration policy, can pro-migrant activists advocate around the deep ties between labor and immigrants’ political and social rights?

Lately, the AFL-CIO has beefed up outreach and organizing efforts for immigrant workers, inside and outside of traditional unions. But bringing immigrants’ full voice into the labor debate requires broader social and political changes to strengthen the rights of all migrants, especially as they intersect with racial and gender justice struggles in poor communities of color.

A more level playing field” in the labor market is just the beginning of the conversation. The economic landscape is so skewed that it has ruptured basic pillars of a democratic society, from freedom of assembly (attacks on unions’ power to organize), to due process (arbitrary detentions and mass deportations of the undocumented), to public services (educational access and healthcare remain highly restricted for documented and authorized migrants). And thousands of other guestworkers will continue to suffer from inadequate labor regulation and employer exploitation and coercion.

This is why, independent of the mainstream debate on reforms and visas, pro-migrant coalitions like the United Workers Congress demand equal, uncompromised protections for all immigrants.

That would entail enforcing rights across all visa programs, like the H2A, and the H2-B visa for temporary non-farm industrial jobs. Meanwhile, more radical groups want to abolish any form of guestworker program, to move toward a less rigid, more rights-conscious migration policy.

Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, tells Working In These Times via email:

Now that it’s clear that any immigration reform will come with a new guestworker program, we need to ensure that all future immigrant workers are treated with dignity and respect. All guestworker programs must include visa portability, the right to organize, and strong protections to stop abusive employers from retaliating against whistleblowers.

While the new W-visa will hardly cure the massive inequalities facing immigrant workers, it might help narrow the political gap between the labor and pro-migrant movements. Capital has always pitted immigrants against native-born workers along racial, ethnic and class lines, exploiting the artifice of citizenship to degrade all workers. As such cruel legal divisions start to be dismantled, workers may start seeing what they can fight for in common: the injustices that can only be remedied by collective power, and their shared aspirations for a just, inclusive economy.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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