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A Step Forward for Guestworkers in the United States

February 23, 2012 ·

Earlier this month, the Department of Labor announced new protections for guestworkers with a temporary work permit.

The Department of Labor recently said that it would take new steps to improve protections for at least one category of vulnerable workers, workers in the temporary work permit (H-2B) program. It has announced new rules for the H-2B program that are a significant step for the protection of U.S. workers and guestworkers who work alongside each other in many industries.

Break the Chain Campaign has worked with exploited household workers since 1997, providing direct social and legal services to survivors of human trafficking and severe exploitation in the DC metro area. Many of these workers arrived on temporary work visas in the B-1, A3, and G5 programs. We have witnessed severe exploitation and even human trafficking that we believe could have been prevented or ameliorated with stronger protections and oversight of the temporary visa programs. In our research and work with other advocacy groups, we have learned that the number of cases of trafficking and severe exploitation of men and women on guestworker visas is growing, and we are energized by this news.

Workers in the the H-2B program do important and vital work for our country, for example helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, yet they are often invisible and left unprotected against retaliation and abuse. We are energized by the news from the Department of Labor earlier this month that they are taking steps to improve protections for at least one category of vulnerable workers.

Daniel Castellanos, a founding member of the National Guestworker Alliance, whose Congressional testimony was cited by the Department of Labor in support of the new rules, describes the victory this way:

“For too long, guestworkers have been lured to the U.S. with false promises of an American Dream, and instead faced deep debt and exploitation. Because these rules contain real worker protections and expand our right to organize, we can win fair wages and working conditions for all workers.”

Key components of the new rules include:

  • The new rules eliminate debt servitude among guestworkers by prohibiting employers and recruiters from charging recruitment fees. Currently, guestworkers enter the United States with exorbitant debt from recruitment fees and travel costs. This allows employers to use threats of firing to repress workplace complaints, knowing that workers would face deportation into crushing debt they cannot repay back home.
  • The new rules prohibit employers and recruiters from retaliating against workers who file a complaint, exercise their rights, or help other workers to do so. This ensures that when employers or recruiters do violate the program rules, U.S. workers and guestworkers have the same rights to speak up and organize to protect themselves.
  • The new rules require employers to provide at least 75% of the hours promised to guestworkers in their contracts. This ensures employers do not over-recruit guestworkers to build a captive, desperate work force that employers can use to undercut U.S. workers.
  • The new rules bar temporary staffing agencies and job contractors except in narrow circumstances. Temporary staffing agencies and the employers they provide workers to must both have a temporary or seasonal need. They must both agree to be jointly responsible and follow H-2B program rules. This helps to ensure employers do not use the guestworker program to turn permanent jobs into temporary work.

Break the Chain Campaign applauds this important step by Labor Secretary Solis and the Department of Labor to protect worker rights. We are excited to continue a partnership with the National Guestworker Alliance to help spread awareness of these new protections and to ensure that they are implemented across the United States in a way that protects U.S. workers and wages by stopping employers from exploiting guestworkers to undercut the local labor force. We believe that preventative worker protections like these new rules will prevent some of the most severe forms of exploitation that we have seen over the years in the anti-trafficking field.