Replacing future immigrants and Americans with temporary foreign workers: Everyone except employers suffers from out-of-control visa system



May 31, 2012, (New York) - The landscape of American employment is being dramatically altered by an expanding system of guestworker visas issued to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, said Global Workers Justice Alliance in a report issued today.

The report, Visas Inc: Corporate Control and Policy Incoherence in the U.S. Temporary Foreign Labor System, provides the first comprehensive analysis of the many visas that employers use and misuse to bring foreign workers into the U.S. The report identifies patterns of abuse affecting both foreign workers as well as the U.S. workers who may be displaced. It also includes research in some of the countries that send workers to different U.S. industries: Mexico, China, India, Philippines, Jamaica and Guatemala.

"The U.S. ‘guestworker program’ is not a program at all. It is a haphazard set of unrelated visas, many of them dreamed up by corporate lobbyists," said Cathleen Caron, Executive Director of Global Workers Justice Alliance. "Any move to expand this flawed program will only help employers who cheat. The whole system is a mess and needs reform.”

According to the best guess of the U.S. government, between 700,000 and 900,000 foreign citizens are working in the United States on temporary visas. They work in every field, from low-wage jobs in agriculture and domestic work, to specialty occupations in health care, education or information technology.

The temporary foreign labor system that brings in these workers consists of dozens of visa categories and sub-categories, for apparently distinct purposes – cultural and educational exchange, employee relocation by multinational enterprises, U.S. based training programs and more.

The system is vulnerable to misuse by employers who use foreign labor to undermine established wages and working conditions in the U.S. For nearly every relevant visa category, internal governmental reviews have documented exploitation of foreign workers, and displacement of American workers. The result is that U.S. workers are losing out on opportunities, and foreign workers have almost no protection from exploitation, unpaid wages, unsafe conditions and even trafficking and other abuses.  

Ashwini Sukthankar, primary author of the Visas Inc. report, said: "If the system continues to expand without any checks and balances, the American economy will be primarily powered by temporary workers from overseas who can be badly treated and then shipped home. It will change our idea of immigration, and of the importance of decent jobs for Americans.”

Visas Inc. highlights nine categories of visas where American workers have been undermined or replaced with lower-paid foreign workers and where foreign workers have been subject to abusive treatment, including:

J-1 visas envisioned for “cultural exchanges”:

  • The J-1 visa has 15 sub-categories, with separate visa programs for camp counselors, au pairs, students working during summer breaks and more. Most participants get little exposure to U.S. culture, and end up in precarious, low-wage work.
  •  In August 2011, foreign students on J-1 “summer work travel” visas protested wages and conditions at a Hershey’s chocolate company distribution plant in Pennsylvania.
  • A company named Global Cow uses J-1 visas to recruit low-wage workers for the dairy industry; it advertises that the “interns” and “trainees” wages are as low as $6.55 per hour; they can be required to work for up to 55 hours per week, with no overtime compensation.
  • Students from Ukraine on J-1 visas were forced to work in a strip club in metropolitan Detroit; the J-1 sponsor agency had told them that they would be waiting tables at a restaurant in Virginia Beach.

B-1, H-1B and L-1 visas, intended for higher-skilled workers:

  • Used by employers to bring lower-paid workers to the U.S. in professional capacities that would otherwise be filled by American workers. The Department of Labor reports that H-1B visas have been used for hundreds of entry-level jobs, at entry-level hourly rates, including cooks ($11), pharmacist interns ($11), and market research analysts ($11.33).
  • Using L-1 visas intended for intra-company transfers, employers can replace U.S. workers en masse with foreign workers who can be – and often are – paid home country wages in entry-level positions, including data entry, in companies including high-tech, computer, and information technology services-related firms.
  • In one case, the transferees, who were computer programmers, received one-sixth of the pay of the U.S. workers they replaced.

H-2 visas for low-wage work:

  • H-2A visas bring in agricultural workers for every conceivable crop in every state of the United States, from apples to oranges, onions to tobacco.
  • The H-2B “non agricultural” visa is used widely by landscapers, amusement park operators, forestry and the hospitality sector.
  •  H-2 workers are often paid a piece rate – based on the amount of fruit they pick or the number of hotel rooms they clean – and employers will frequently and illegally adjust the hours they worked downward, when preparing paychecks, to make it appear that the workers were paid the proper hourly rate.
  •  H-2 employers also try to avoid paying hourly wages and overtime through a day rate. Indonesian H-2B oil rig workers were forced to work up to 90 hours a week, at a fixed rate of $100 a day.

In all cases, workers are tied to the employer who applied for their visa. In most cases, they have no legal or practical way to protest ill-treatment and non-payment of wages. Complaining workers can be immediately sent out of the country and blacklisted from future contracts. A Guatemalan official quoted in the report said, “an overarching aspect of the guestworker experience is living with fear.”

Visas Inc. recommends several measures that the U.S. government should take to fix the system:

  • The Department of Labor must play a role in all visa categories that enable temporary work in the U.S., to assess the potential displacement of U.S. workers, and enforce appropriate wages and working conditions for foreign workers.
  • The U.S. must release consolidated and consistent data in a timely manner about the use of these visas, including the names of employers currently recruiting foreign workers.
  • The U.S. government should undertake a systematic and sustained review of the temporary foreign labor visas to bring them in line with broader U.S. labor market policy.
  •  The long-term goal of reform should be a single visa system with uniform oversight, to replace the current patchwork of visas, each subject to separate regulations. The system should be administered publicly, rather than by private entities who currently profit from placing or employing foreign workers.
  • The U.S. should engage systematically with foreign governments whose citizens work here, and should cooperate with them to prevent abuse.