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Close to Slavery: Report Finds Labor Abuses Under Guestworker Programs

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As President Bush renews his call for legislation that allows more immigrants to come to the United States as so-called guestworkers, a new report based on thousands of interviews finds widespread worker abuses under the program. We speak with the author of the report, and we go to Guatemala to speak with a former guestworker. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Thursday, President Bush reiterated his call to pass an immigration bill that allows more immigrants to come to the United States as so-called guestworkers. President Bush made the call during a press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Mexico marked the last stop on President Bush’s five-nation tour of Latin America.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If people can come into our country, for example, on a temporary basis to work, doing jobs Americans aren’t doing, they won’t have to sneak across the border. And, by the way, a system that encourages people to sneak across the border is a system that leads to human rights abuses. It’s a system that promotes coyotes and document forgers. It’s a system that allows for the exploitation of citizens who are trying to earn a living for their families.

JUAN GONZALEZ: However, many human rights groups are strongly criticizing the guestworker proposal. The Southern Poverty Law Center has just released a report titled “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.” The report found that guestworkers who come to the United States are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage temporary jobs. Once here, they’re held virtually captive by employers who seize their documents. They are forced to live in squalid conditions while being denied medical benefits for injuries.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Bauer joins us on the line from Montgomery, Alabama. She is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. She is the author of the report, “Close to Slavery.” We called the Department of Labor and invited them on the show to respond to the report; they declined our invitation. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mary.

MARY BAUER: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you lay out your findings in this report?

MARY BAUER: Sure. Our report was based on literally thousands of interviews with workers over the course of years, based on the work done by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And what we found is that the guestworker program leads to the abuse and exploitation of workers, not because there are a few bad-apple employers, but because the structure of the system itself leads to abuse. The fact that workers pay enormous sums of money and come to the United States with crushing debt and the fact that they are then tied to one employer — they can legally work only for the employer who filed the petition for them — the structure of that system leads to those workers being systematically exploited on the job.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things that intrigued me about your report was your laying out some of the history of guestworker programs in the United States. Obviously, from the time of the colonial period, when William Penn had labor recruiters going throughout all of Germany recruiting people to come to work in the United States, we’ve had as an immigrant nation all kinds of guestworker or immigrant programs, indentured servants, slavery. Could you talk about some of that historical record, especially in relationship to Mexico and the bracero program that you touch on in your report?

MARY BAUER: Sure. I mean, I think the bracero program is very interesting to look at. And I thought — I was really struck in reading a lot of the scholarly historical literature about that program, because it consistently referred to the bracero program as like the widely discredited bracero program. And there seems to be a fairly broad consensus that that program was a human rights disaster.

But when you look at it, it was a program in which millions of Mexican migrants came to the United States in the early [20th] century to perform agricultural work over the course of several decades and then was ended in the '60s. It had, written into that program, very strong labor protections, all kinds of labor protections. You know, one of the historians quoted it as being, you know — on paper, at least — one of the, you know, best deals for farm workers in the world. The problem was that in reality the structure of the system there led to the same kind of abuses that we're seeing.

And what we’re saying is, if you think — if we think as a society that the bracero program is universally condemned as having been a failure, there is no reason to believe that our current system in practice is any different. And there’s no particular reason to believe that future programs would be any different.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the programs now, the two kinds of guestworker programs in the United States.

MARY BAUER: Sure. Our report focuses on the H-2 program, which is for, as it’s called, unskilled labor. The H-2A program brings in agricultural workers, and about 32,000 agricultural workers come under that program each year. The H-2B program in recent years has brought in around 90,000 workers a year, and that’s for non-agricultural labor. Those workers are largely coming in as — in the forestry industry, landscaping, hospitality, seafood processing, and construction. Those are the kind of biggest categories. And there’s a seasonality or temporary requirement, so the employer has to show — has to petition to the government, say this is a temporary or seasonal job, and they can’t find U.S. workers to do it. The employee is then recruited from abroad and is permitted to work only for the employer who filed that petition. And so, the employee gets to the United States and discovers that, “Oh, my gosh! There’s not very much work,” or the work is terrible, or he’s not paying me, or any number of other kinds of abuses, there’s really nothing that he or she can do.

And the other thing we see in practice is that the people who do this kind of work, they’re typically borrowing enormous sums of money, from $500 to literally tens of thousands of dollars. And we’ve seen workers who paid up to $20,000 to get a low-wage, short-term job. And the people who do that are people generally who don’t have that kind of money, so they’re borrowing money in their home countries at extremely high interest rates from loan sharks. And so, they arrive here with this kind of crushing level of debt and this ongoing debt back in their home country.

The other thing we have seen from workers in Guatemala and some other places is that they are often required to leave collateral with someone in their home country. So some of our clients from Guatemala have had to leave, for example, the deed to their home with the recruiter in Guatemala in order to ensure that they comply with the terms of the contract. And this obviously leaves workers feeling extraordinarily vulnerable once they get to the United States. And we see that fairly chronically. And that really — it creates — the structure of that system, with the heavy debt and being tied to employer, creates this kind of skewed power disparity between employer and worker that leaves the worker in an incredibly vulnerable position.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how does the H-2 or H-2B program compare to other guestworker programs, let’s say, for more professional workers? A lot of the folks who are coming in as computer programmers, even in the media now, it’s becoming very popular to try to bring in guestworkers. Could you talk about the size of those programs versus these and also the conditions that these more middle-class workers are facing?

MARY BAUER: Well, I will say I am not as familiar, in practice, with what the H-1 program looks like in practice, because we represent low-wage workers. So I simply haven’t seen the way they operate in the real world. Those workers do have more choice, in terms of being able to select among employers. I believe that there is a cap in the H-1B program now of around 65,000 workers, I think. And I, you know, just couldn’t tell you in terms of the kind of ways that workers are paid and the wages that those workers receive. I mean, our report focuses explicitly on the H-2 program, because that is what is — that’s the kind of model that appears to be what policymakers are talking about — that is, talking about these kind of low-skilled jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Bauer, we’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’ll be joined by a Guatemalan so-called guestworker, and we’d like you to stay with us. Mary Bauer, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. She is speaking with us from Montgomery, Alabama. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking with Mary Bauer. She is a director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, author of the new report, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.” And we’ll speak with a guestworker. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. I’d like to bring into this discussion a former guestworker named Nelson. He’s joining us on the phone from Guatemala. He came to the United States on the guestworker program, where he worked as a tree planter for the Georgia-based Eller and Sons Trees. It’s the largest forestry contractor in the United States. Nelson does not want his full name mentioned, as he plans to come to the U.S. in the future. And he will also be translated by Cassandra Smithies. Bienvenido al programa, Nelson.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome to Democracy Now! Could you tell us a little bit about how you came here to the United States and were involved in this program and what kind of conditions you confronted?

NELSON: [translated] Yes, I would like to comment on that. In 2003, I came to the U.S. I was looking for an opportunity to improve my life. I worked with a forestry contractor planting trees. Thanks to God, things were working out, more or less. I think, well, things sort of went downhill from there. I was working in Georgia. I don’t know why, but I just worked one day with a company, and then the work was erratic, and a lot of days we didn’t have work and we were just kicking around a soccer ball waiting for the next gig.

So since there was not enough work, we called some friends, trying to find some other form of employment. These were some friends that we knew from Mexico. And so, we were just eking out an existence, just getting enough to get by, to eat. But we were staying in a hotel, and the owner was pressuring us to pay up. And since we didn’t have enough work, then we couldn’t pay. Well, the forestry contractor said, “Look, we don’t have any jobs to plant trees at this time.” So we only worked one or two days a week, but it really wasn’t enough to pay for the hotel where we were staying.

And that was why we decided to contact a pastor at a nearby church to see if he could help us. He was a pastor from Georgia. So we went down to the church to talk to him. My father said that he wanted to stick it out some more and see if there was going to be more work at the company. My father-in-law and my father decided to stay on, but I decided to move on. And a number of my cousins and other family members decided to continue to stick it out there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m asking him: Nelson, why, given the — how many other people were in the same situation as you and the other family members? And how were you able to survive even just eating if you were having trouble paying the hotel, just being able to get by or pay for food?

NELSON: [translated] Well, we were about 22 workers, if I remember correctly. A few of them spoke English, and I spoke a few words, and that’s why I went to the Baptist church for help. Of the 20 that continued working at the forestry company, many were family members. I thought they would get some more work, but the next day they called me up, and they called me down at the church, and they asked me to come and get them, because they decided that they just couldn’t continue and that they were going to leave that job, as well. And so, the pastor got a van, and we went down and picked everybody up.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Bauer, I wanted to ask you in Montgomery, Alabama, if this is a typical experience, what Nelson is describing, as you did your research for your report, “Close to Slavery”?

MARY BAUER: It is a typical problem. Part of the problem is that the employer under this system doesn’t really — doesn’t pay any of the expenses associated with bringing these workers to the U.S. So they don’t have any incentive to bring the right number of workers. So it happens very commonly in some industries that employers just bring in a whole lot more workers than they actually need, because, you know, basically, what do they care? It’s not costing them anything. So workers often sit around for a long time without having work, and they’re not allowed to go work somewhere else.

Usually in our labor market, if you don’t like the way you’re being treated, you go somewhere else. You have the protection of the free market. These workers don’t have that. So we see workers who are recruited too early or who are over-recruited, and it’s much worse for these workers than for even ordinary low-wage workers, because they have this debt they have to keep paying on. They’re paying for their own housing. They’re paying for their own food. And we’ve had lots of workers who, even during the time of their contract, aren’t even able to pay back their debt, much less, you know, make the kind of pot of money that they had anticipated making when they came to the U.S. and, you know, left their family members behind.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you find was closest to slavery — the title of your report — what examples?

MARY BAUER: Well, we receive complaints virtually every week about employers seizing people’s documents. This is a very common problem with guestworker programs here in the United States. And what we see is that workers come here — they have this debt, they’re only allowed to work for this employer — and when they get to the U.S., the employer takes their passport, takes their Social Security card, and says, “You can’t leave. I’m holding these.” We’ve had employers threaten to call the immigration service when workers have said that they wanted to leave. We’ve had workers who were told, “If you leave, I’m going to rip up your visa and call immigration, because then you’ll be undocumented.” And workers really feel very unfree. They feel that they don’t have any choice. They can’t leave. They’re being held in a condition, which is, granted, not slavery, but it’s pretty close.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about these contractors, the ones who actually do the recruitment and the supplying of this labor force? Is there any kind of regulation or oversight by any government agencies of these contract groups?

MARY BAUER: No, absolutely not. And so, what we see is that the abuse begins in people’s home countries and continues through the time of their employment in the United States. And in this program — these programs have spawned what you could only call a quasi-criminal army of recruiters in Mexico and Guatemala. And the stuff they do, you know, does border on criminal. I mean, we’ve had workers threatened in very serious ways when they have tried to assert their rights. So they try to assert their rights here in the United States, and thugs show up in their wife’s home in Guatemala. That happened in one of our cases. So the abuse is pretty powerful, and it is not incidental to this system. It’s really built in as part of this system.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Bauer, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. We’ll link to the report on our website, democracynow.org, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, “Close to Slavery.”

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