How US Temporary Work Visa Laws Enable Forced Labor and Exploitation

In honor of the U.S. National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month the HTS blog and social media accounts will focus on a lesser-known area ofhuman trafficking: forced labor and exploitation in the agricultural sector. Forced labor remains a fairly invisible crime in the United States. One reason for this is that it is often perpetrated under the guise of legal employment practices. The Urban Institute recently released a study of 122 closed cases of labor trafficking in the US. All of the cases involved immigrants working in the US. 71% of those victims were in the US on temporary work visas. Forced labor was found in a variety of venues including agriculture, hospitality, domestic service, construction, and restaurants. Across sample sites, forced labor was found to be a low priority among federal and local law enforcement, and victims were only recognized as having been trafficked after they had escaped on their own.

The recruitment process for temporary work visas is a significant contributor to labor exploitation. Victims in the Urban Institute’s study were often recruited by third or even fourth party agencies, many of these agencies directly connected to employers in the US. Many victims were required to pay substantial fees to the recruiters – an average $6,150. This was more than the annual per capita income in the top six countries of origin in the study. In order to finance these recruitment fees, victims often went into debt or took out loans backed by family lands or homes. Going into debt to gain employment in the US makes workers extremely vulnerable. Leaving a job, even an exploitative one, is difficult when your family is dependent on your wages. When leaving that job would guarantee that your family will become homeless, it is a nearly impossible decision.

Once employed in the US, workers on temporary work visas have few legal protections against exploitation. The most common forms of temporary work visas are the H-2A agricultural worker visa and the H-2B temporary non-agricultural worker visa. These visas are linked directly to a particular employer. In other words, the worker’s immigration status is completely dependent on their employment with a particular person or business. If the worker finds the conditions to be abusive or exploitative, their only options are to leave the country (increasing their already significant debt) or to stay with the employer. This dynamic creates a situation ripe for abuse. Employers use fear of immigration officials and law enforcement to coerce workers into staying in exploitative arrangements.

Further, H-2A visas allow exemptions from basic labor standards, including the federal minimum wage, the 40 hour work-week, and over-time pay. Especially for agricultural laborers, food, housing, and transportation are often completely controlled by the employer. The workers are sometimes charged an exorbitant amount for sub-standard supplies and these costs are then subtracted from their wages. This makes it impossible for workers to pay off their debt, creating a situation of bonded labor.

Abuse and exploitation have been rampant in the temporary work visa program since its creation during WWI, and in its previous iterations, such as the “bracero guest worker program”. Workers have reported wage theft, confinement, sexual abuse, torture, and attempted murder. These abuses have continued unabated and largely unaddressed. Whether it’s sheep herders in Colorado, guest workers doing Hurricane Katrina clean-up, or the domestic workers of diplomats, little has been done to prevent further abuses or strengthen protections for workers.

Fortunately, there has recently been a glimmer of hope. California recently passed S.B. 477 which is intended to protect migrant workers from bonded labor. The bill requires that labor contractors provide workers with a document detailing their rights (in English and in the worker’s primary language), protects workers from fees and charges for gaining employment, and expands options for redressing rights violations. Such protections should become the norm, rather than the exception, for guest-workers.

Ryan Beck Turner is Program Director of the International Human Trafficking Institute.

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