David is an excellent journalist on labor and immigration issues.
Talking Points on Guest Workers
Prepared by David Bacon
Who are guest workers?
Guest workers are given a visa to enter the US to work
on a temporary basis. To obtain a guest worker visa, a
worker must have an offer of employment, or a job
waiting in the US. This requirement sets up a system
of labor recruitment, in which labor contractors offer
workers jobs, and make the travel arrangements for them
to come. Usually, workers then have to pay at least
for the cost of the transportation, and often much
more. While the terms of the visa vary from one
program to another, they all require workers to be
employed while they're in the US. In most programs,
workers have to remain employed under the original
contract they sign with the contractor, or the US
employer. If they leave their job, or incur the
displeasure of their employer, they can be fired, lose
their visa status and forced to return home.
What was the bracero program?
The bracero program was the US' first big experiment in
using guest workers. Thousands of Mexicans were
recruited to come to the US as farm workers from 1942
to 1964, and for the first two years worked on the
railroads as well. They were recruited at centers in
Mexico, and had to obtain (usually through bribes) a
letter from the local authorities testifying that they
were good workers. They were fumigated on arrival in
the US with DDT, and then county grower associations
parceled the workers out among various local ranchers.
Workers were housed in military-style barracks, and
generally treated in an abusive way. If they
complained or tried to strike or stop work, they were
sent back to Mexico. Money was deducted from each
worker's paycheck, to create an incentive to them to
return to Mexico at the end of their contracts. Most
of this money disappeared. Since then former braceros
in the US and Mexico have been trying to force the
Mexican government to pay the money owed them.
Despite the abuse, many Mexicans used the program to
send money back to their families and home communities.
Some stayed behind illegally when their work contracts
ran out, and eventually were able to gain legal status
and bring their families to live in the US.
Why was the bracero program ended? Who fought to end
Some braceros did strike to try to improve conditions,
and were often supported by local Mexicano/Chicano
communities and activists, like Bert Corona, founder of
the Mexican American Political Association. Despite
those efforts, most Mexicano/Chicano activists tried
for years to end the program. The leader of those
efforts was Ernesto Galarza, a former diplomat and
labor organizer. Galarza and his coworkers charged
that the program was inherently abusive to immigrants,
who should be given equal status instead of being
treated as disposable labor. He also charged that
growers would bring in braceros when local farm workers
tried to organize unions and strike.
Another opponent of the program was Cesar Chavez. He
organized campaigns in Oxnard, California, and other
barrios to prove that growers were not trying to hire
workers from local communities, even when there was
high unemployment. Chavez later said he could never
have organized the United Farm Workers until growers
could no longer hire braceros during strikes. The
great 5-year grape strike in which the UFW was born
began the year after the bracero program ended. Chavez
believed agribusiness' chief farm labor strategy for
decades was maintaining a surplus labor supply to keep
wages and benefits depressed, and fight unionization.
What kind of abuses do modern guest workers endure?
Guest workers recruited under modern programs are often
cheated of the pay they're promised. Employers and
contractors are required to obtain certification from
the Department of Labor, but certification is almost
never denied, even to contractors with long records of
labor law violations. Employers routinely violate
overtime, minimum pay, travel and housing requirements.
Contractors must also demonstrate that there are no
local workers available to perform the work, and that
they've tried to find them, but this requirement is
rarely enforced. Many current programs allow the use
of a blacklist, or a record of workers who are
ineligible for rehire because of alleged misconduct,
because they've worked too slow, or have protested and
caused trouble. Even when there is no formal
blacklist, contractors decide who will work from one
season to the next. Abuse is unavoidable.
Are there meaningful, effective protections for the
labor rights of guest workers?
The record shows that even when there are minimal
standards for pay, overtime, housing and other
requirements, employers violate them with impunity.
Although workers do have some legal recourse on paper,
they are unable to use the legal process effectively in
practice. One worker, hired to plant and tend pine
trees grown for the paper industry, explained that he
didn't file a legal complaint even when he knew he was
being cheated. "We didn't protest because we couldn't.
We were far away from the company office, and maybe the
next year they wouldn't give us the chance to go [to
the US again]... My idea was to escape from the job
right away. Otherwise, I wouldn't make any money."
Guest workers are commonly told that if they speak to
priests, legal aid attorneys, or union organizers
they'll be fired, deported, and blacklisted.
Often the most important factor for workers is the debt
they face at home, in the communities from which they
come. Workers have to take out huge loans to pay the
costs of coming to the US. If they lose their job,
their families lose their homes or land. John Wilhelm,
president of UNITE HERE, who heads the AFL-CIO's
immigration committee, says, "I don't think it's
possible to have labor protections for contract
workers." Even U.S. citizen workers lose their jobs
during union organizing campaigns, he says. "To think
the law will protect people whose right to stay in the
country ends with their job is not living in the real
If these programs are so abusive, why do workers want
to enroll in them?
Poverty in rural communities of Mexico, Central
America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia drives people
to leave in order to ensure the survival of their
families. Poverty is often the product of economic
reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund and
World Bank, to create profitable investment
opportunities for large multinational corporations.
Trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA make
poverty worse, by ending subsidies on food and
transportation, encouraging low wages, and mandating
privatization and the loss of public sector jobs.
Workers trying to survive under these conditions often
see migration as their only option. Work in the United
States, even under abusive conditions, can seem an
economic necessity, when the alternative is hunger,
unemployment, and lack of a decent future for their
Who wants these programs?
Proposals for a new temporary worker program are
popular in corporate America. President Bush has been
their main proponent, and calls instead for linking
"willing employees with willing employers." Bush
opposes legalization for undocumented workers, His
program calls for 300,000 people to be given temporary
visas for three years, renewable for another three. It
was adopted point-for-point from a report written by
the conservative Cato Institute in 2002. Corporate
pressure has grown so strong that even bipartisan
proposals for immigration reform now include guest
workers. A bill introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy
and John McCain includes a program even larger than
that proposed by Bush - 400,000 temporary visas per
These proposals incorporate demands by the Essential
Worker Immigration Coalition - 36 of the US's largest
trade and manufacturers' associations, headed by the US
Chamber of Commerce. This organization includes the
National Association of Chain Drug Stores (think Wal-
Mart), the American Health Care Association, the
American Hotel and Lodging Association, the National
Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Retail
Federation, and the Associated Builders and
Contractors. These industries are already heavily
dependent on immigrant labor. Their program is
supported by the ultra-right Manhattan Institute.
Despite their claims, there is no great shortage of
workers in the US. There is a shortage of workers at
the low wages industry would like to pay. Today's
immigrants are actively organizing unions and fighting
for better conditions. Guest worker programs would
supply employers with a more vulnerable workforce.
Is the United States the only country considering
large-scale guest worker programs?
There is already a large guest worker program in
Canada. Immigrant advocates charge that the Canadian
government discriminates against them. Guest workers
pay into Employment Insurance funds but are
disqualified from collecting benefits, receive lower
wages than other workers doing the same job, and are
not covered by health and safety legislation. Workers
who demand better conditions are deported. In Britain,
the government has sought to end asylum programs for
refugees, while setting up programs to supply temporary
workers to British industry and agriculture, referred
to as "managed migration." Other Europeans countries
are also setting up similar programs.
The economies of all industrial countries have become
dependent on immigrant labor. There is a huge flow of
millions of migrant workers from developing to
developed countries all over the world. Governments
want to manage it in the interests of large
corporations, creating a second-class workforce with
fewer rights and lower wages.
What effect do guest worker programs have on families
Guest worker programs encourage the migration of young
unaccompanied men, which has a big effect on sending
communities. Ghost towns appear in rural Mexico and
Central America during the peak work seasons in the US,
with many villages losing most of their best workers
during their most productive years. Villages become
places for idle recreation and retirement, rather than
domestic production. Inflation of land prices makes
land unavailable to residents who stay behind and seek
work in their native areas.
Periods when whole families were able to settle in the
United States, because of the availability of permanent
residence visas, produced much better conditions in
migrant communities. So did the legalization program
in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Labor unionization, civic participation and wage levels
all improved, as settled immigrants demanded better
conditions. Families are better at protecting their
rights than single migrants. Wives and mothers
frequently become involved in US institutions and learn
about their rights, helping to mobilize workers to
stand their ground against employers.
Real immigration reform could enable immigrants to form
stable communities in the US. Temporary workers cannot
do this, since they have no right to live with their
families, to develop their culture, including religion
and music, to housing and healthcare, or to political
representation. When the work is done, they have to
move on. The Indigenous Front of Binational
Organizations, an organization of Mexican immigrants,
"disapproves of the Bush initiative for temporary, or
'guest' workers because it doesn't guarantee respect
for labor and human rights." Instead, it calls for
legalizing undocumented workers.
What impact will expanded guest worker programs have on
communities and unions in the US?
Guest worker programs also have an impact on the jobs
and wages of other workers. Employers want the
programs because they offer a workforce that can be
paid less than one hired from local communities. The
US paper industry, for instance, lowered the prices it
paid contractors for planting pine tree plantations.
Contractors stopped hiring a US-resident workforce, and
began hiring workers under the H2-B program as a
Job competition is a fact of life for workers in the US
economic system. Employers often use the pressure of
unemployment to depress wages, and pit one community
against another. Guest worker programs give them a
powerful tool to increase this competition. Employers
could especially sharpen job competition where workers
are organizing unions, trying to raise wages, or
challenging past patterns of discrimination.
Workplace surveys show a pattern of discrimination
against African-American workers in some industries
employing large numbers of immigrants, such as
electronics assembly, semiconductor production, hotels,
building services, construction and others. Some
unions are addressing this history by supporting the
rights of all workers. UNITE HERE, for instance, calls
for enforcing the workplace rights of immigrant workers
in the hotel industry, while asking hotels to make
special efforts to hire from communities that have been
the victims of past discrimination, and suffer high
unemployment. This particularly affects African
Americans, but also established immigrants. Large
guest worker programs would give hotel corporations the
ability to bring in a new, low-wage workforce, instead
of agreeing to the remedies proposed by the union.
Is there a connection between new guest worker
proposals and enforcement of employer sanctions?
Employer sanctions, or the law which makes it a crime
for an undocumented person to hold a job, have been
justified as a means of discouraging people from
immigrating illegally. In this respect, they've been a
total failure. They have, however, made undocumented
workers more vulnerable to employer pressure, and have
been used to prevent workers from organizing unions and
defending their workplace rights.
With new guest worker proposals, employer sanctions
have acquired a bigger purpose. Many guest workers
find they can earn more money, and work in a less
pressured environment, if they leave the jobs for which
they were contracted. Employer sanctions become a
means to force them to stay with their contracted
employer, since finding another job becomes riskier and
Some proposals, like the Kennedy-McCain bill, propose
that current undocumented workers should work for six
years as guest workers, and pay a $2000 fine, in order
to obtain legal status. They would have to give
authorities all the information needed to deport them
if their application failed, and would become
disqualified if they were unemployed for as little as
30 days. Employer sanctions then become a means to
pressure undocumented immigrants into enrolling in
those guest worker programs, by making it much more
difficult for them to work if they chose not to.
Don't many workers come to the United States to work
for just a short period anyway?
A better solution is to expand the number of permanent
residence visas, allowing workers to travel between
their countries of origin and the US freely, rather
than as contract labor. They would be able to bring
families with them, and settle in the US if they
choose. They would be free to exercise their rights in
a way that contract workers are not. They could become
integrated into the communities around them on the
basis of equality.
Is there an alternative that would give undocumented
immigrants legal status?
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee proposes a
legalization program that would allow undocumented
immigrants to normalize their status if they've lived
in the US for five years, and gain some knowledge of
English. This proposal is like the legalization
provision passed by Congress in 1986, and signed into
law by President Ronald Reagan. The Jackson Lee bill
does not contain a guest worker program, and increases
the enforcement of immigrant rights, rather than the
enforcement of employer sanctions.
The UN Convention on the Status of Migrants and Their
Families guarantees a new set of rights for migrants
corresponding to this new era of heightened global
migration. It holds both sending and receiving
countries responsible for their welfare, and proposes
the goal of equal status of migrant and non-migrant
people. Countries maintain control of their borders,
and determine the rules for access to employment. The
US has not yet ratified this basic statement of human