« The Rose City by Any Other Name Still Smells Like Segregation: Gentrification in Portland | Main | Global Stratification »

The Exploitation of Guestworkers in the United States

Excellent research paper by M.H. - Fall 2009

"Human history is the chronicle of class struggle, those in power using society's resources to benefit themselves and to oppress those beneath them - and of opposed groups trying to overcome domination." (Henslin 2009)

This quote from Henslin's book, "Essentials of Sociology," shows us that all throughout human history, there has been class struggle, and there have been those in power, whether it is political or corporate power, who will use society's resources to benefit only themselves.

The politics of social stratification with its relationship to race, culture, and social class are very much alive and ongoing in the United States today. Most Americans don't want to believe that any type of oppression is still happening here in the United States. They want to believe that we are a country in which there are opportunities for all, and moving up the social ladder, or social mobility, is something that is an inherit right and available to everybody. However, sociologists know this is not true. There are many different ways people in power use their positions to "seize greater rewards for themselves," while oppressing others. (Henslin 2009) What I will be discussing in this paper is the struggle of migrant and "guestworkers" in the United States, and how they are socially oppressed, exploited and abused. Additionally, I will describe how politicians and corporations have influenced American ideologies and have reinforced the belief that hiring guestworkers is good because they do jobs that Americans don't want to do.

Let us begin with the notion that unattractive jobs must be filled by foreign workers. Employers who state that Americans will not do certain jobs because they are beneath them imply that the foreign workers who take them are a separate underclass. Having our government back these employers by issuing policies that allow them to hire guestworkers internalizes this ideology in our society - that guestworkers are a separate underclass and deserve to be treated as such. This idea is in conflict with what we are outwardly taught that America is a society that believes in equality of opportunity and that we should avoid ethnic and racial discrimination of any kind.

This internalized ideology is prevalent among employers who seek to hire guestworkers for low wages. An example of just how prevalent this ideology is among employers comes from a company, Professional Grounds, Inc., which is a landscaping company located in Springfield, Virginia. In 2006, they ran a help wanted ad in the local newspaper for landscaper help. The company stated in their ad that the starting wage was $7.74 per hour - which is $8.32 in comparable 2009 wages. (In researching these figures, I found that one of the lowest paid positions in Springfield at the time was a car wash attendant who made $11.00 per hour in 2006 wages and $11.83 per hour in 2009 wages). The company always placed ads like this, and they hoped that nobody would respond, because if they did, Professional Grounds would by law, have to offer the jobs to United States citizens. Professional Grounds actually recruits its real labor force from Mexico and Central America through the United States Department of Labor's H-2A Program. This is a program that allows employers who cannot find enough American workers at the market's "prevailing wages" to hire foreign migrant workers on temporary work visas. By advertising for these jobs at such low wages, Professional Grounds is assured of being able to hire "guest workers" and pay them very low wages because they know that American citizens will not apply. The low wages offered for these jobs support the ideology that "Immigrants fill the jobs native workers won't do." The President of Professional Grounds buys into the ideology wholeheartedly. When he was asked if "native-born Americans" would apply if the wages were doubled he said, "I don't think it's a wage situation. It's the type of work and the nature of the work. It's hard, backbreaking work." (Jaynes, p. 6)

Additionally, the idea that the guestworker policy is good because it helps keep prices low and does not affect American jobs is not true. History has showed us time and again that guestworkers are exploited and abused. In fact, we should ask ourselves, "How can a program, which permanently isolates a class of workers and treats them as a separate and unequal social class, not lead to exploitation?" According to Henslin, conflict theorists believe that there are two main ways to keep laborers under control. "The first tactic is to keep workers insecure. Fear of unemployment works especially well," and the second tactic is "encouraging and exploiting racial - ethnic divisions" by pitting worker against worker". (Henslin 2009) One of the main problems guestworkers face is that fact that they cannot freely change jobs, because their H-2 contract stipulates that they can only work for the employer who hired them. Moreover, they do not complain if they are exploited or abused because they are afraid that they will be deported. Furthermore, they face many civil rights abuses. Some of these abuses are that they are cheated out of wages, held captive by employers who confiscate their documents, forced to live in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, denied medical coverage if they are injured on the job, and many are forced to pay large sums of money for the privilege of coming to the United States to work. (Bauer 2007)

The first occurrence of guestworkers being exploited and socially oppressed began in 1942, when the United States negotiated with the Mexican government to import low-skilled labor, creating the Bracero Program. This program began as a way to help American farmers because there was a labor shortage as the United States had just entered World War II. The Bracero Program was supposed to bring in a few hundred experienced farm laborers to harvest sugar beets in California, but by the time the program was abolished in 1964, more than 4,500,000 Mexican laborers filled jobs of the Braceros. Although this program had many legal protections written in it, including contracts with workers, housing that would comply with minimum standards, wage guarantees, minimum of 30 days of work, and shared transportation costs, none of these protections stopped American employers from exploiting the Braceros.

As is the case today, due to deportation threats, the Braceros were afraid to complain; they were technically held captive because they did not work consistently and were unable to earn enough money to even pay their way back home. When they did work, they had to work long hours - sometimes 12 a day, and their earnings barely covered their expenses. They constantly had unauthorized deductions taken out of their pay, were given little or no food and they had to live in run-down, unsanitary and overcrowded housing. In addition, they encountered unsafe working conditions that sometimes led to disabling or fatal accidents, and they even tolerated physical abuse, as well as severe racial discrimination. In fact, the exploitation and mistreatment of the Braceros was so severe in Texas, that the Mexican government barred Texas from participating in the program from 1942 to 1947. This first guestworker program was so abused and the people were so badly exploited that the Labor Officer in charge of it, Lee G. Williams said that it was a system of "legalized slavery." (Bauer 2007) Conflict theorists term this type of treatment of one social class exploiting the other, "internal colonialism." Internal colonialism is similar to colonialism, but instead of an industrialized nation taking advantage of a less industrialized nation, a country's dominate group exploits minority groups for their economic advantage. They manipulate social and governmental institutions to control minorities and deny them full access to their society's benefits. (Henslin 2009)

Just like the employers of today, the farmers' main purpose in recruiting foreign workers was to be able to exercise control over who worked, dictate how much they earned, and to be able to control under what conditions they worked and lived. Like any other classification based on immigration status, guestworker programs segregate the workforce, which allows employers to exploit immigrant workers which in turn, drives all workers' wages down.

Stratification of the guestworkers become even more pervasive when, in addition to abuse in the work place, Braceros had to contend with discrimination in the communities where they worked. Many of the establishments in these communities posted "No Mexicans, White Trade Only" signs in an effort to keep Braceros away. Furthermore, many Braceros reported that they often received verbal abuses, false arrests, and physical attacks. (Hines 2006)

After the Bracero Program was terminated in 1964, another phase of exploitation began when foreign workers were imported for agricultural work under the H-2 sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This program was set up in 1943 because Florida's sugar cane industry requested and was given permission to hire Caribbean workers to cut sugar cane on temporary visas. This program too, was badly flawed, and the Caribbean laborers were often exploited, abused, and paid a lower rate than originally promised. Then, in 1986, a well-publicized labor dispute occurred where 300 sugar cane cutters refused to work unless they were paid their stated contract amount. The company involved called the police, and they used guns and dogs to gain control over the laborers, round them up, put them on busses and send them back to the Caribbean. This incident demonstrates the opportunity for extreme abuse in a guestworker program, because it permits the employers to have absolute control of the workers, which includes their right to remain in the United States. (Bauer 2007)

This H-2 program was revised in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which divided it into two sections, the H-2A agricultural program and the H-2B non-agricultural program. Both these programs have protections written in them, but these protections exist only on paper. As was stated earlier, one of the fundamental problems with these guestworker programs is that it gives the employer absolute control over their guestworkers, not just in their wages and working conditions, but also in their legal status. This creates a huge imbalance of power, which is dangerous and leads to extreme abuses.

The exploitation of guestworkers normally begins in their home countries when the agencies that represent the United States employers recruit the workers. Lured by these recruiters and promised jobs that pay high wages, they are required to pay large fees, sometimes thousands of dollars, to cover the cost of travel, fees, visas and profit for the recruiters. Most of the workers who want to come to the United States to work are doing so because they have little or no economic opportunities available to them, and they usually are living in poverty. To pay these huge fees, they borrow from friends, or may mortgage a family home. If they don't have anything to mortgage, or have friends to borrow from they must take out loans at very high interest rates, making it impossible for them to ever pay the loan off during the term of their contract.

For example, in her article "Close to Slavery, Mary Bauer of The Southern Poverty Law Center writes how Guatemalan guestworkers paid an average of $2,000 in travel, visa, and hiring fees to obtain forestry jobs in the United States. She states, "Guatemalans are recruited from Huehuetenango, an extremely poor region where many indigenous people live. . . They generally work as subsistence farmers and have virtually no opportunity to earn wages in rural Guatemala.

Thus, their only realistic option for raising the funds needed to secure H-2 jobs in the United States is to visit a loan shark, who will likely charge exorbitant interest rates. Many of these workers report having been charged 20 percent each month. Given that the pine tree planting season is three months long and workers often earn less than $1,000 per month, they have little hope of repaying the debt doing the work for which they were hired." In her report, she tells the story of Alvaro Hernandez-Lopez who came to the United States to work for Express Forestry Inc. He states, "What I earned planting trees in the States was hardly enough to pay my debt . . . it was really hard for us to fight to get to the States legally and then not earn any money. We were told we had to leave our deeds to get the job. On a blank paper, we had to sign our names and hand over our deeds. They said that if we didn't sign this paper they wouldn't bring us to the states to work." (Bauer 2007)

Then, there is the story of Nelson Ramirez. He signed up to work with Eller and Sons Trees Inc. The agency who recruited him required his wife to sign a paper agreeing to be responsible for his debt if he did not honor his contract. Again, as the conflict theorists believe, this is a tactic of keeping the workers insecure, and therefore, under control.

This type of extortion is not limited to Latin America. There are recruiters in Thailand who charged $5,000 - $10,000 or more for the privilege of being employed in short-term agricultural jobs that pay less than $10.00 per hour. In actually, the workers were not even paid that.

Additionally, in an effort to keep wages low, many employers will seek long visa periods, claiming to have many more months of work than they actually have. When the guestworkers have completed their contract, the employer "allows" them to go work somewhere else. The guestworkers call this period "tiempo libre," or their "free period." This is violation of the immigration laws, but the workers think this is legal because their employer gave them permission. By allowing this period of "tiempo libre", the employers are able to continue to attract a low paid workforce. (Bauer 2007) This policy of allowing a worker to "work off" their contract, then being released to work somewhere else closely resembles the definition of an indentured servant.

Another tactic of ensuring that the guestworkers remain insecure and vulnerable is that the employers "hold all the cards" relating to the employment of the guestworker. The worker basically has no rights because the employer can send them home for any reason whatsoever. A forestry worker from Guatemala reported that when a supervisor noticed that a guestworker was getting fed up because the pay was too low, the employer would take the workers papers away. The forestry worker said the employers would rip up their visas and threaten them with deportation. This has been one of the most common complaints from guestworkers - the seizure of their papers. Some employers say they are holding the documents for safekeeping, while there are others who will admit that they are taking the papers so the guestworkers will not leave in the middle of the contract. The employers believe that if the workers have their paperwork, they will leave. (Bauer 2007)

Discrimination is another form of stratification guestworkers must endure. Many of the workers who want to come and work in the United States are told by recruiters that they are too old. One guestworker was told that it was the policy of the North Carolina Growers Association that they don't accept employees over the age of 40. The United States claims they have no jurisdiction over this type discrimination because it does not happen on United States soil. Moreover, guestworkers often times receive different pay based on their national origin, and women are frequently put into H-2B jobs (non-agricultural) because they pay less than H-2A jobs. (Bauer 2007)

In addition to discrimination, women guestworkers report being continuously sexually harassed. After meeting with farm workers in Fresno, California, William R. Tamayo, a regional attorney for the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), stated that, "We were told that hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors." Additionally, Tamayo was told that there is a field in California that the guestworkers refer to as "fil de calzon," or "field of panties," because so many women had been raped by there by their supervisors. (Bauer 2007)

Another requirement set by the H-2 guestworker program is that employees of the H-2A program (the agricultural workers) are to receive free housing that is in good condition for the period of the contract. The housing is often times inadequate, and some workers have reported that as many as 20 workers must share a "house" and many more report having to live in accommodations such as old school busses. Guestworkers who are hired on the H-2B program are not required to receive free housing, but many employers still offer it purely out of necessity - the workers are paid so little they cannot find housing on their own. The employers who offer housing to the H-2B workers are allowed to charge them rent which, of course they do. The rent, which is often excessive, is deducted from the workers' paycheck, and the workers end up earning much less than they expected; it often works out to be less than the minimum wage.

Moreover, employers often locate guestworker's housing in isolated rural areas. This causes the workers to be extremely dependent on their employer since they usually don't have cars and there is insufficient public transportation available to them in these rural areas. In addition to being exploited by their employers, the workers must also rely on them for transportation for trips to the grocery store and banks. Having the guestworkers so dependent on the employer gives the employer absolute power over their workers. Furthermore, many guestworkers report that the housing given to them lacks electricity, bathrooms, and even windows. For example, some of the guestworkers who were hired to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina actually had to live in the hotels that had been damaged by the hurricane. These hotels were dirty, moldy, and filled with garbage. The water was not safe to drink, but the workers had no choice but to use it to cook their food. (Bauer 2007)

Due to the fact there is so much illegal immigration in the United States, there is much debate in congress about what we should do with our H-2 guestworker program. President Bush implemented changes to it before he left office that President Obama and our new representatives do not agree with, so the debate continues. However, what congress really needs to consider is whether or not we can really fix a broken program that has had allowed such terrible abuses to migrant workers. Moreover, since these abuses have been ongoing since the 1940s, maybe we should consider a completely new approach to the guestworker dilemma. While researching what might work to fix the H-2 program I discovered what seems like a promising alternative to our current program. A Futurist and an International Affairs Student, named King Taj, suggests that a possible solution would be to allow the migrant workers to move freely from the United States to their home country. He calls this a "Circular Pattern." This would allow the migrant workers to maintain a relationship with their families, and maintain social ties with their home country. He states, "This can lead to eventual permanent repatriation for many reasons. First, it may help migrants maintain a sense of belonging to their original communities. It may also encourage migrants to develop business relationships and look for financial opportunities in their home countries. For immigrants in the United States, a circular pattern means being able to return home without the risk of being shut out when trying to return to the United States. Daniel Griswold argues that most Mexicans who come to the United States do not have plans to stay permanently, and that the goal is typically to return home and rejoin families and communities. The implication here is that migrant workers are afraid to return home for fear they will not be able to easily return to the United States." (Taj, 2007)

This seems like a promising idea since we have a history about this too. Before the introduction of the Border Patrol in 1924, and before the introduction Bracero Program in 1942, Mexican laborers were free to cross the border, work, and return home. Most laborers did not stay in the United States. They just wanted and needed to work and then would return home to their families, friends, and their own familiar culture. The United States created the problem of illegal immigrants by making it hard for the laborers to reenter the United States after they returned home. Perhaps our representatives in Washington D.C. should look at what has worked in the past before making decisions about what we should do in the future.

Clearly, the H-2 guestworker program contains many flaws in it that allow employers to exploit migrant workers who want to work in the United States. Although changes to the policy could offer more protections to the guestworkers, I do not believe this program should be expanded, or even used at all in the United States. Moreover, when immigrants come to America, they become part of our society and culture. Even the immigrants who are here illegally can become part of our society; if not them, their children who are born here can. Unless we can change the ideology that the politicians and the corporations have engrained into our culture, a guestworker and their family will have no opportunity to become part of our American society. They will be slotted into a "caste," with no real hope of ever rising above it. They will never be viewed by Americans as equals. They will never be immigrants or future Americans; they will merely be janitors, construction workers, and housekeepers. (The New Republic, 2006)

Works Cited

1. Henslin, James M. 2009. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon:
Boston MA

2. Hines, Sarah 2006. "America's Last Guest Worker Program: A System Designed for Maximum Exploitation"

3. Bauer, Mary 2008. "Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States"

4. Coleman, David A. 2007. "To the Contrary" PBS TV show transcript

5. Taj, King 2007 Guest Worker Programs: Establishing a Circular Pattern.

6. "That's Hospitality" 2006 The New Republic

7. Jaynes, Gerald D. "Migration and Social Stratification: Bipluralism and the Western Democratic State"