David Bacon on Guest Worker Programs
I think the documentation in the SPLC report, Close to Slavery,
should be studied carefully by anyone interested in immigrant rights.
It shows the extremes of exploitation and abuse that have been
exposed in guest worker programs, time after time. Whether you call
these programs "guest worker," "essential worker," "new worker," or
by any other euphemism, the reality documented in this report cannot
Close to Slavery also shows clearly that promises of "labor
protections" made by those who propose new programs are false
promises. Instead, these promises provide political cover for
politicians who want to vote for "comprehensive immigration reform"
which includes new guest worker programs, and at the same time
preserve what reputation they have for being pro-worker and
For that reason, I disagree strongly with the report's
recommendations. It advocates changes to guest worker programs which
I think are basically cosmetic, and will not substantially change the
situation of people who are recruited into them. As a journalist
who's investigated these programs, interviewed people in them, and
written about them a great deal, the report fails to answer the
question posed at the beginning of the recommendation section --
whether these abusive programs should be preserved at all. These
programs inevitably deny the rights of immigrants and all working
people. Not only should they not be expanded or duplicated -- they
should be abolished.
Guest worker programs are "fundamentally flawed" (the report's own
language), and the recommended changes will not alter this. Even
were they enacted, there is no more will to enforce them than there
is to enforce present protections. Further, the recommended changes
themselves are not realistic, especially in terms of the
documentation so ably made in the rest of the report.
Allowing guest workers to go to court, for instance, is not an
effective means of redress for more than just a few workers. These
are not problems that can be solved with more lawyers or more legal
cases. Allowing workers to go from one employer to another is not a
meaningful change if they still have to remain employed, and leave
the country if they're unemployed for more than a brief period. As
the report documents, the debt load is so crushing, and the risk of
having to return without being able to pay it off is so high, that
getting fired for complaining or organizing is just as threatening as
it would be if workers were tied to a single employer. Allowing
employers to recruit or hire workers abroad obligates those workers
to them, making them fearful of protesting bad treatment or of
joining unions. Employer recruitment opens up the kinds of hiring
and contracting abuses we just saw in the Signal International
shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
I fear the recommendations will be used by those who support
Kennedy/McCain-type legislation to defend what in fact are more guest
worker programs -- that by changing their names, and tacking on the
report's recommendations, they've changed the essential nature of
these programs. Similar attempts were made in the last session of
Congress, and will likely happen again in this session.
Why publish a report titled "Close to Slavery," and then advocate
measures which would allow them to continue?