by DMIer, Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 01:03:04 PM EDT
by Amy Traub cross posted at DMIblog.
Immigration legislation proposed this year has included a large national guest worker program as a way to bring currently undocumented immigrant workers out of the shadows and provide an above-board way to meet the continued demand for immigrant labor. While many immigrant rights groups have embraced the guest worker idea, DMI has warned against it, due to what we see as the high potential for abuse and exploitation of guest workers, which ultimately threatens wages and working conditions for native-born American workers.
As a case this week in New Orleans illustrates our point. The U.S. already has several small guest worker-type programs, including the H2-B visa program, which allows employers to recruit non-professional foreign workers for temporary jobs when no U.S. employees can be found. It was under this program that 82 guest workers from South American and the Caribbean paid thousands of dollars in recruiting and travel fees to work in a number of hotels in downtown New Orleans. But once they were in the country, and legally prohibited from switching jobs or getting additional part-time work, they were never given the promised number of working hours -- meaning they couldn't make ends meet in the U.S., much less pay off their steep travel debt and send the money home that was the entire point of the trip. According to their lawyer "They are captive workers in a situation of virtual debt peonage."
We might care about this situation because we sympathize with workers like Peruvian Humberto Jimenez, who mortgaged his house to get the cash to pay the recruiting fee, or Bolivian Theresa Ortiz, who fears she will return home poorer and deeper in debt than when she arrived. But this case isn't just about sympathy for foreign workers: it's about the American middle class.