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H-2: Low-tech labor. The government's H-2 visa category is a boon to corporations dependent on manual labor but unwilling to pay high enough wages to attract US workers. The handy H-2 "rent-a-worker" program lets these companies import more than 100,000 low-wage workers a year from impoverished communities in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. The workers clean rooms in luxury resorts, peel crawfish in seafood plants, do the sweaty things for landscape outfits, and otherwise toil at our economy's bottom rung, usually paid minimally (or less) by companies that profit from their labor.
Our "guests" tend to be treated as the indentured servants of their corporate sponsors. In a stunning new report this July titled "The New American Slavery," Buzzfeed.com found that H-2 workers are commonly cheated on pay, made to work extremely long hours with no overtime wages, forced to pay illegal fees, housed in squalid and dehumanizing conditions (such as horse trailers), sexually harassed, not allowed to travel, and kept under constant surveillance by employers and local police.
The "guests" can only work for the employer that sponsored their visa. Plus, employers often confiscate (illegally) the workers' passports.
Why doesn't the government do something to stop these outrages? Because Congress protects corporations, not people. Even though the Labor Department, which administers H-2 visas, found violations of the guest worker law in 82 percent (!) of the cases it investigated last year, Congress funds so few investigators and enforcement agents that the vast majority of companies bringing foreign workers to our Land of the Free are not monitored. If a company is prosecuted, fines are minor, and even repeat violators can keep getting new workers through the program. Almost none of the abusers are ever charged with a crime.
- Illustration by Brian Duffy
H-1B: High-tech labor. At the opposite end of the guest-worker scheme are visas reserved for brand-name corporate giants wanting to import college-educated workers with specialized information-technology skills. But wait — don't we have a lot of top-notch IT specialists born and raised on our own soil? And aren't the high-tech fields of science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) a priority of the US educational system, already producing twice as many university graduates as there are jobs? Yes and yes. But the royals of high tech — companies such as Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Microsoft — don't want to pay the market rate of salaries, benefits, and promotions that good IT employees can command. So to break the workers' power, the industry's PR specialists first concocted a "crisis" by screeching that America's educational system fails to produce the number and quality of STEM graduates that their corporations must have, thus creating a brainpower shortage that threatens tech innovation. Second, their lobbyists, using ample campaign donations as a lubricant, keep convincing Congress that the only solution to this national emergency is to let the corporations import more tech workers from abroad.
This phenomenally rich industry is presently allowed to bring 65,000 foreign workers to their campuses each year. In violation of federal laws, the corporations do not "make every effort" to find qualified US employees before seeking H1-B workers, nor do they pay the prevailing US salary to these workers. The temporary visa holders generally don't get promotions or retirement benefits, and after being used for three years or so, they're sent back home to be replaced by a new batch of disposable foreigners.
High-tech execs insist they wouldn't think of misusing the program to fluff up their own profits, but — oops — just this year it's been revealed that both Disney Inc. and Southern California Edison have fired hundreds of their US technology employees after getting the okay to import temporary foreign workers. Then the corporations required the displaced Americans to train their replacements as a price of getting severance pay.
Meanwhile, industry lobbyists are demanding that Congress triple the number of high-tech workers they can import each year.
Chiseled into the marble facade of the US Supreme Court building is this noble sentiment: "Equal justice under law." But most Americans today know that there's no use hoping that the next president, the Congress, or the courts will turn our country's egalitarian pretensions into fact. Only you and I can do that by building, step by step, a grassroots social justice movement. The good news is that various progressive campaigns and coalitions are out there, building and beginning to unite into a whole much bigger than its separate parts. In the spirit of that first Labor Day, let's take heart in this rising rebelliousness, join the parade, and take part in lifting our society closer to America's highest democratic ideals.
The guest worker visa program not only leaves foreign workers subject to exploitation and abuse, but the program also undermines pay and working conditions for many American citizens. The National Guestworker Alliance advocates to end the abuses of the H-2 and H1-B visa programs. A recent op-ed by NGA's executive director in Washington's The Hill newspaper imagines the lives of guest workers at Donald Trump's ritzy Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. According to US Department of Labor records, the would-be "greatest jobs president" has obtained some 350 visas for H-2B waitstaff, cooks, and housekeepers since 2009.