Will Immigration Reform Address H-2 Guestworker Recruiter Violations?

Mike Elk

An office of the recruitment agency Labors Mex USA in Celaya, Guanajuato. (Photo by Gracia Cuzzi, via CDM).

With Pres­i­dent Oba­ma vow­ing to push immi­gra­tion reform, guest work­er advo­cates want to ensure that the H‑2 visa pro­gram — which grants tem­po­rary or sea­son­al U.S. visas to for­eign work­ers in sec­tors such as agri­cul­ture — is on the agen­da. All too often, advo­cates say, guest work­ers are forced by third-par­ty recruiters to pay ille­gal recruit­ment fees, some­times with­out receiv­ing a job in return.

Hop­ing to jump­start a con­ver­sa­tion on these exploita­tive prac­tices, the migrant-rights orga­ni­za­tion Cen­tro de los Dere­choes del Migrante (CDM) released a report on Thurs­day titled Recruit­ment Revealed” that sur­veyed 220 guest work­ers from Mex­i­co about guest-work recruit­ing abus­es. CDM also unveiled a Yelp-like” new online track­ing tool that will allow guest work­ers to write reviews of the recruiters and their practices.

Adare­ly Ponce is one of those sur­veyed by CDM who report­ed being ripped off by recruiters. Ponce is 31 and lives in Hidal­go, Mex­i­co, a rur­al region where there is lit­tle work avail­able. Many who live there go sea­son­al­ly to the Unit­ed States as guest work­ers; Ponce has been to the Unit­ed States nine times over the last nine years. In the process, she says, she has been scammed out of mon­ey by guest work­er recruiters on three dif­fer­ent occasions.

The first time it was in my town and a man put up a fly­er announc­ing jobs,“ says Ponce. The fly­er said I should go to his house for more infor­ma­tion. He told me there was a job to work in apples in Michi­gan. He told us we would have to give him 1,000 pesos [rough­ly $100] in order to put our names on the list. No work showed up, so a few weeks lat­er I went to his house and he said I would have to give him anoth­er 2,000 pesos [$200] to find work. A few weeks lat­er, I went back and he told me there was no more work to be had.”

The amount of mon­ey Ponce lost was equiv­a­lent to what she could make in three months’ of work in Mex­i­co. She says that approx­i­mate­ly 50 oth­ers from her town paid the recruiter, only to receive no job and no refund.

The sur­vey done by CDM shows that near­ly 1 in 10 work­ers wind up pay­ing recruit­ing fees for work that nev­er emerges. Ponce did so twice more: once tricked by trap­pings of legit­i­ma­cy, once just des­per­ate for work.

Even when such fees do lead to work, they are still ille­gal. Yet 58 per­cent of H‑2 guest work­ers sur­veyed were lured into pay­ing recruit­ment fees. The aver­age fee is $590, a mas­sive sum for many Mex­i­cans. Forty-sev­en per­cent of the work­ers sur­veyed said that they had to go into debt in order to pay the recruiters. Some took out loans with inter­est rates as high as 79 per­cent; oth­ers put up col­lat­er­al such as their homes.

Despite both col­lat­er­al arrange­ments and recruit­ment fees being ille­gal, guest work­ers have a dis­in­cen­tive to report them. If work­ers report these vio­la­tions of guest work­er pro­grams, the con­tract with the guest work­er pro­gram that they are spon­sored under is often can­celled; result­ing in the guest work­ers los­ing their jobs – and any col­lat­er­al they signed over to recruiters. Such were the charges in the noto­ri­ous Glob­al Hori­zons case, in which the labor recruit­ing com­pa­ny came under fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tion for alleged­ly hold­ing Thai guest work­ers against their will in Hawaii (the case was dropped in August). Many of the work­ers said that they had not spo­ken out ini­tial­ly for fear of los­ing their fam­i­lies’ homes in Thailand.

Rachel Mic­ah-Jones of CMD says that while the U.S. gov­ern­ment over­sees pro­gram spon­sors and guest work­ers when they are in the Unit­ed States, over­seas recruiters are not prop­er­ly regulated.

In the immi­gra­tion reform [con­ver­sa­tion] there is a myth that employ­ees need work­ers and they just sort of find each oth­er,” says Mic­ah-Jones. There is no real con­ver­sa­tion about how this hap­pens. It’s a crit­i­cal link that affects the rela­tion­ships that work­ers have with their employ­ers in the Unit­ed States. “

Mic­ah-Jones is hop­ing that the sur­vey and the online track­ing tool will not only help change the polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion, but also help work­ers fight against recruiter abusers.

The map puts all the pub­licly avail­able data in one place,” she says. This is basi­cal­ly aimed to pro­vide work­ers to have more infor­ma­tion and make more informed deci­sions – and for pol­i­cy mak­ers to make more informed deci­sions as well.”

CDM hopes that pol­i­cy­mak­ers will even­tu­al­ly adopt the online track­ing tool on a large scale. Still, the bar­ri­ers to reform­ing the guest work­er pro­gram seem immense. Daniel Cos­ta of the union-fund­ed Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute says that despite the efforts to expose exploita­tive recruiters, employ­ers are hap­py with the sta­tus quo and will be resis­tant to change.

Now there is some hard data that advo­cates and pol­i­cy­mak­ers can actu­al­ly point to,” says Cos­ta. That being said, it’s an uphill bat­tle to get pol­i­cy­mak­ers to be con­cerned about these types of work­er abus­es. First, you’re deal­ing with a non-cit­i­zen, non-vot­ing pop­u­la­tion, and some of the abus­es don’t even occur on U.S. soil. On the oth­er hand, U.S. employ­ers are ben­e­fit­ting huge­ly from increased prof­it mar­gins from using guest work­ers they can legal­ly under­pay, and avoid­ing lia­bil­i­ty by using recruiters and sub­con­trac­tors — and employ­ers lob­by hard pub­licly and pri­vate­ly (and con­tribute to cam­paigns) to keep the sys­tem the way it is. Between these two groups, who do you think pol­i­cy­mak­ers are going to lis­ten to?”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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