News Archives
Arts & Video
Back Links
About LaborNet

David Bacon on Guest Worker Programs

Dear folks,

I think the documentation in the SPLC report, Close to Slavery, should be studied carefully by anyone interested in immigrant rights. It shows the extremes of exploitation and abuse that have been exposed in guest worker programs, time after time. Whether you call these programs "guest worker," "essential worker," "new worker," or by any other euphemism, the reality documented in this report cannot be denied.

Close to Slavery also shows clearly that promises of "labor protections" made by those who propose new programs are false promises. Instead, these promises provide political cover for politicians who want to vote for "comprehensive immigration reform" which includes new guest worker programs, and at the same time preserve what reputation they have for being pro-worker and pro-immigrant.

For that reason, I disagree strongly with the report's recommendations. It advocates changes to guest worker programs which I think are basically cosmetic, and will not substantially change the situation of people who are recruited into them. As a journalist who's investigated these programs, interviewed people in them, and written about them a great deal, the report fails to answer the question posed at the beginning of the recommendation section -- whether these abusive programs should be preserved at all. These programs inevitably deny the rights of immigrants and all working people. Not only should they not be expanded or duplicated -- they should be abolished.

Guest worker programs are "fundamentally flawed" (the report's own language), and the recommended changes will not alter this. Even were they enacted, there is no more will to enforce them than there is to enforce present protections. Further, the recommended changes themselves are not realistic, especially in terms of the documentation so ably made in the rest of the report.

Allowing guest workers to go to court, for instance, is not an effective means of redress for more than just a few workers. These are not problems that can be solved with more lawyers or more legal cases. Allowing workers to go from one employer to another is not a meaningful change if they still have to remain employed, and leave the country if they're unemployed for more than a brief period. As the report documents, the debt load is so crushing, and the risk of having to return without being able to pay it off is so high, that getting fired for complaining or organizing is just as threatening as it would be if workers were tied to a single employer. Allowing employers to recruit or hire workers abroad obligates those workers to them, making them fearful of protesting bad treatment or of joining unions. Employer recruitment opens up the kinds of hiring and contracting abuses we just saw in the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

I fear the recommendations will be used by those who support Kennedy/McCain-type legislation to defend what in fact are more guest worker programs -- that by changing their names, and tacking on the report's recommendations, they've changed the essential nature of these programs. Similar attempts were made in the last session of Congress, and will likely happen again in this session.

Why publish a report titled "Close to Slavery," and then advocate measures which would allow them to continue?

David Bacon

contact LaborNet

copyright 2007 © LaborNet