DMI Blog

Amy Traub

Guest Workers Get Screwed

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.

We argue that when immigrants lack rights in the workplace, labor standards are driven down, and all working people have less opportunity to enter or remain part of the middle class. And indeed, the workers' suit alleges that the hotels' "goal in using foreign labor instead of seeking the services of U.S. workers was to drive down wages and working conditions." Why hire New Orleans residents in a city desperate for economic opportunity when you can exploit guest workers for much less? The hotel company claims it looked for New Orleans residents and evacuees to staff the hotel before recruiting workers abroad, but has refused to offer any evidence.

The case touches on many issues. As several studies have documented, exploitation of immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, has been rampant in the rebuilding of New Orleans, hampering the city's economic reconstruction. Racial issues have also come to the forefront, as Saket Soni of the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition notes that while Latino guest workers are being exploited, "African American survivors are locked out of the hotel industry even as they struggle to return home and regain their lives a year after Katrina."

The case also comes at a time when hotel workers across the country are fighting to transform what are often low-wage, marginal jobs into stable, middle-class positions, as hotel jobs already are in some heavily-unionized cities. This case illustrates exactly the forces they're up against.

Finally, it's worth paying attention to the nature of the best hope the New Orleans guest workers have for getting justice -- a lawsuit. As DMI fellow Cyrus Dugger has relentlessly documented, the right-wing assault on the American civil justice system aims to restrict exactly this means for ordinary people to hold powerful entities accountable for their wrongful behavior. There ought to be a law against the kind of exploitation practiced by Decateur Hotels LLC and, in fact, there are several that apply. But in an atmosphere of weak or non-existent enforcement, it's a good thing we still have our right to sue.

Amy Traub: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 3:23 PM, Aug 18, 2006 in Civil Justice | Economic Opportunity | Economy | Hurricane Katrina | Immigration | Labor
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