Legislative Efforts to Reduce Labor Exploitation of Immigrant Workers

Recently, a new bill was introduced in Congress that would require greater transparency about foreign guest worker programs in an effort to help prevent labor trafficking and exploitation of such workers when they come to work in the U.S.  The bill, the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act, would create a uniform system for reporting data that the U.S. government already collects on temporary visa programs and require that the information be made publically available. It represents the latest advancement in the anti-trafficking and workers’ rights advocacy fight to regulate unscrupulous labor recruiters and recruiting firms who have been known to charge workers exorbitant recruitment fees which can sometimes place workers into situations of labor trafficking and even debt bondage within the U.S.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of workers from abroad come to the United States to temporarily work jobs in a number of industries, such as agriculture, construction, child and elder care, seafood processing, and hospitality as well as information technology jobs, nursing, and teaching at U.S. universities and grade schools. These immigrants arrive to the U.S. through temporary foreign worker programs. These workers come from many countries including: Mexico, Honduras, India, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Grenada. The workers themselves, who hold nonimmigrant visas, are allowed to remain and work in the country for a limited period of time, depending on the terms of their specific visa.  Guest worker programs have been a part of the U.S. immigration system and continue to provide valuable and flexible labor flows to the U.S. economy.

While the arrangement between foreign temporary/guest workers and their American employers can be positive, there has been increased reports that such arrangements can lead to worker abuse, wage theft, exploitation, and even labor trafficking and debt bondage. A recent Urban Institute report on labor trafficking in the United States found that 71% of the labor trafficking cases studied were individuals who were brought into the U.S. legally through visa programs.  Additionally, Polaris reported that 40% of labor trafficking or exploitation cases reported from August 2014 to August 2015 from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline and the BeFree texting helpline reference temporary visas.

Reports of labor exploitation and trafficking are increasing, however, they do not reflect the numbers of cases that human trafficking experts estimate may be present given the current guest worker population which numbers in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. Part of the data discrepancy can be attributed to the hesitancy of workers to come forward to report exploitation by employers and recruiters. Another factor of the underreporting is the lack of verifiable data available on the guest worker programs themselves, as currently information about the cities where guest workers are employed and other basic information is not publically available. Legislative efforts like Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act would function as a means to fix that information gap.

As the government already possesses a vast amount of data on guest worker programs and temporary visas, the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act does not require the government to collect much more or to impose new burdens or requirements on employers. It would simply provide increased access to this information. That may seem like a small step, but it would go a long way to bringing oversight and transparency to preventing labor trafficking and exploitation in our guest worker system and to ensuring that no person is ever again trafficked on a visa into the United States.

Ashley Feasley is the Director of Advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC). 

Photo Credit: Roll Call