Standing Up for Guest Workers
Published: May 1, 2011
Slavery and human trafficking are alive and well in the United States, according to lawsuits filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of farm laborers in Hawaii and Washington State and shipyard workers on the Gulf Coast.
The suits allege that labor recruiters and employers lured, trapped and abused foreign workers hired through federal guest-worker programs. The government charges that more than 500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse. When they complained, the suit says, Signal agents tried to intimidate workers’ families in India. Two lawsuits filed in Hawaii and Washington against other employers make similar charges about 200 men brought from Thailand.
The United States urgently needs to strengthen protections for guest workers who are lied to by recruiters and tied to employers with too much power to exploit them. Today’s shackles are the threats of deportation and financial ruin. They might as well be iron.
A recent agreement by the federal Labor and Homeland Security Departments to work together on immigration and labor enforcement at work sites is encouraging, though there are serious concerns about Homeland Security’s past behavior. Sworn testimony in a separate civil lawsuit against Signal International charged that rather than protecting the Indian workers, immigration officials coached the company on how to silence and deport them.Workers in the new lawsuits may win some money and be eligible for special visas for trafficking victims. But they are only a handful of workers — both documented and undocumented — stranded in a system that accepts their labor but fails to prevent their exploitation.