By Sue Weishar, Ph.D.
The perfect recipe for worker exploitation is to prohibit workers from changing employers, however unfair, abusive, or discriminatory. Yet that is exactly how U.S. guestworker programs are structured.  What makes the guestworker program for temporary non-agricultural labor, known as the H-2B visa program, even more susceptible to severe exploitation is that many H-2B guestworkers arrive to the United States deeply in debt. This happens when impoverished men and women, desperate to create a better future for their families, are required to pay for their own transportation to the United States, as well as huge application fees to labor recruiters. Workers, believing that they will be securing a bright future for themselves and their families in the United States, borrow money at high rates of interest or mortgage the family farm or home. When they arrive in the U.S. they may find no work or work at dramatically fewer hours and less pay. Mired in debt and desperate, they become compliant workers for abusive employers.
Exploitation of guestworkers on H-2B visas was widespread in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A well-known case involved Decatur Hotels, a group of 15 luxury hotels in New Orleans that brought 290 guestworkers from Peru, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic to the city to do re-construction work. Workers were promised $10 to $15 an hour and 60 hours of guaranteed work per week, comfortable housing with televisions and telephones in every room, and free food and transportation to and from the job site every day. Each of the workers paid between $3,500 and $5,000 to cover recruiting fees, travel, and visas.  But as guestworker Daniel Contreras soon discovered, “the promises made to us had been lies.”