Indentured Servants in America
By Bob Herbert
New York Times March 12, 2007
A must-read for anyone who favors an expansion of guest
worker programs in the U.S. is a stunning new report
from the Southern Poverty Law Center that details the
widespread abuse of highly vulnerable, poverty-stricken
workers in programs that already exist.
The report is titled 'Close to Slavery: Guestworker
Programs in the United States.' It will be formally
released today at a press conference in Washington.
Workers recruited from Mexico, South America, Asia and
elsewhere to work in American hotels and in such labor-
intensive industries as forestry, seafood processing
and construction are often ruthlessly exploited.
They are routinely cheated out of their wages, which
are low to begin with. They are bound like indentured
servants to the middlemen and employers who arrange
their work tours in the U.S. And they are virtual
hostages of the American companies that employ them.
The law does not allow these 'guests' to change jobs
while they're here. If a particular employer is
unscrupulous, as is very often the case, the worker has
little or no recourse.
One of the guest workers profiled in the report was a
psychology student recruited in the Dominican Republic
to work at a hotel in New Orleans in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina. The woman had taken on $4,000 in
debt to cover 'fees' and other expenses that were
required for her to get a desk job that paid $6 an
But after a month, her hours were steadily reduced
until she was working only 15 or 20 hours a week. That
left her with barely enough money to survive, and with
no way of paying off her crushing debt.
The woman and her fellow guest workers had hardly
enough money for food. 'We would just buy Chinese food
because it was the cheapest,' she said. 'We would buy
one plate a day and share it between two or three
people.' She told the authors of the report: 'I felt
like an animal without claws - defenseless. It is the
same as slavery.'
Steven Greenhouse of The Times recently reported on a
waiter from Indonesia who took on $6,000 in debt to
become a guest worker. He arrived in North Carolina
expecting to do farm work but found that there was no
job for him at all.
The report focused primarily on the 120,000 foreign
workers who are allowed into the U.S. each year to work
on farms or at other low-skilled jobs. In most cases
the guest workers take on a heavy debt load to
participate in the program, anywhere from $500 to more
than $10,000. Worried about the welfare of their
families back home, and with the huge debt hanging over
their heads, the workers are most often docile, even in
the face of the most egregious treatment.
The result, said the report, is that they are
'systematically exploited and abused.'
Some of the worst abuses occur in the forestry
industry. The report said, 'Virtually every forestry
company that the Southern Poverty Law Center has
encountered provides workers with pay stubs showing
that they have worked substantially fewer hours than
they actually worked.'
A favorite (and extremely cruel) tactic of employers is
the seizure of guest workers' identity documents, such
as passports and Social Security cards. That leaves the
workers incredibly vulnerable.
'Numerous employers have refused to return these
documents even when the worker simply wanted to return
to his home country,' the report said. 'The Southern
Poverty Law Center also has encountered numerous
incidents where employers destroyed passports or visas
in order to convert workers into undocumented status.'
Without their papers the workers live in abject fear of
encountering the authorities, who will treat them as
illegals. They are completely at the mercy of the
President Bush has been relentless in his push to
greatly expand guest worker programs as part of his
effort to revise the nation's immigration laws. To
expand these programs without looking closely at the
gruesome abuses already taking place would be both
tragic and ridiculous.
'This is not a situation where there are just a few
bad-apple employers,' said Mary Bauer, director of the
Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law
Center, which has initiated a number of lawsuits on
behalf of abused workers. 'Our experience is that it's
the very structure of the program that lends itself to
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company