Modern Day Indentured Servants: Guest Workers in the United States 

Migrant workers in Eastern North Carolina.  Courtesy: Andrew Lichtenstein (Corbin News)

Migrant workers in Eastern North Carolina. Courtesy: Andrew Lichtenstein (Corbin News)

By: Juan Arreola (The Durham Maroons)

Jobs and unemployment have been a topic of hot debate throughout this election cycle. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in August remained steady at 4.9 percent. That translates to an estimated 7.8 million unemployed individuals. The official unemployment rate does not include the 2 million persons who were “not in the labor force” and had not looked for employment in the past 12 months. Of those not currently searching for work, approximately 576,000 have become discouraged and stopped searching for employment because they believe there are no jobs available for them. 

Given those estimates, some 8.3 million people are available to fill potential job openings. Yet, every year many employers hire hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers, primarily from Central and South America, because there are “not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available.” The foreign workers fill low-wage, unskilled jobs in agriculture, construction, landscaping, and other non-agriculture trades, such as in the hotel and restaurant trades. In 2015, more than 175,000 foreign workers came to the United States to perform those jobs. 

The costs associated with hiring foreign workers (“guest workers” as they are commonly known) is considerable. Employers, often labor contractors, recruit the workers in their country of origin. Employers are required to pay for all the guest workers’ costs associated with obtaining a U.S. H-2A or H-2B visa and traveling to the United States, including food. Once in the United States, employers must pay the workers a wage determined annually by federal law, usually $3 to $4 more than the current minimum wage of $7.25. Employers must also provide the workers with free housing. At the end of their contracts, employers are responsible for the workers’ travel expenses back to their home countries. 

Given that millions of people are in need of employment and that hiring guest workers is expensive, why are Americans not being hired to fill the jobs performed by the guest workers? 

It’s complicated but starts with control. 

“We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” 

Almost 60 years later, that quote, from Harvest of Shame, a 1960 investigative report by Edward R. Murrow that highlighted the plight of predominately African American agricultural workers, still rings true. Of course, the oppression of African Americans is deeply rooted in racist ideologies, which, to some extent, apply to today’s guest workers. Hiring guest workers provides employers with control and dominance over their workers; control which, today, they cannot easily exert over U.S. workers. 

Employers must meet certain basic requirements aimed at preventing abuse. For example, they must pay the guest workers fair wages and ensure decent working conditions. But unlike their American counterparts, guest workers are not allowed to switch employers. They are tethered to their hiring employer for the duration of their contract. If, for any reason, a guest worker wants to abandon his or her employment with a particular employer, he is strictly prohibited from seeking employment elsewhere and must depart the United States or face deportation. That requirement makes guest workers vulnerable to exploitation.  

Abuses suffered by guest workers are routine and range from underpaying employees to sexual and physical assault. Guest workers may be charged exorbitant and illegal recruiting fees by recruiters in their country of origin. The fees, often in the thousands of dollars, place the workers in considerable debt from the onset. Once in the United States, they often work in less than adequate working conditions, working long hours in the hot sun, and are negligently exposed to harmful pesticides. They are refused drinkable water and bathroom breaks. They are routinely underpaid for performing backbreaking and risky work. Many are made to pay for housing, which is prohibited by law. They are crowded in housing that regularly falls below living standards, lacking basic amenities (such as running water, toilets, and beds) and are infested with rodents and insects. 

Often, guest workers are reluctant to report abuse for fear of retaliation. Reporting abuse or mistreatment may lead to dismissal requiring the worker to return to his or her country of origin, even if the dismissal constitutes illegal retaliation. On paper, guest workers are provided with protections aimed at preventing abuse. In practice, guest workers experience prevalent abuse. More effective regulation is required to ensure that the workers, some who harvest the foods that we all enjoy, are actually treated like guests.