Demanding Guestworker Reforms is Pro-Immigrant

Richard L. Trumka President, AFL-CIO

Our country is addicted to cheap labor, and our broken immigration system helps to feed the addiction. Immigrant workers themselves are not to blame for stagnant wages in our country. The problem is caused by employers who put profits ahead of people, and trample rights and drive down standards in the process.

For far too long, our immigration system has put all of the cards in the hands of employers and allowed them to wield entirely too much power over millions of captive and exploitable workers in our labor force. To fix that, immigrant workers in the U.S. need full rights and citizenship -- and we must insist on rights and protections for those who will come in the future as well.

Demanding reforms to abusive guestworker programs serves the long-term interests of all working people. So we should stop to ask ourselves, who exactly is leading the push for more visas that treat workers as a commodity?

Those calls are certainly not coming from Marisela Valdez and Isy Gonzalez, who were threatened at gunpoint, cheated, and held in slave-like conditions as H-2b visa seafood workers in Louisiana.

They are not coming from Sully Fernanda Alquinga Defaz, who accepted a professional position as a J-1 visa hospitality intern in South Carolina, but instead was required to perform manual work at wages that fell well below the federal minimum wage.

They are not coming from Ingrid Cruz and the 350 other public school teachers who were defrauded into debt bondage by the H-1B visa recruiter who brought them here from the Philippines.


They are not coming from the Indian L-1 visa workers at Electronics for Imaging who were forced to work more than 120 hours per week installing computers for less than $2 per hour.


And they are not coming from the ranks of our current undocumented workforce, who understand all too well what it means for their lives and livelihoods to be subject to the whims of abusive employers.
Indeed, the insatiable demand for more guestworker visas comes from one source and one source only: the greedy CEOs and corporations who stand to profit from them.

The sad truth is that abuses of guestworkers are not isolated cases - they are egregious and widespread throughout the alphabet soup of visa programs that bring hundreds of thousands of new workers of all skill levels into our country each year. Workers in these programs are tied to a single employer, restricted in their ability to assert their rights, and blocked from accessing justice.

They are also routinely intimidated, charged fees, harassed, underpaid, and threatened with deportation if they raise concerns. It should be a source of national shame that we allow these abuses to continue, but instead of working to make these programs better, we are told that we need to make them bigger.

Some advocates may be willing to align with corporate interests and sweep the problems with guestworker programs under the rug in hopes of passing some version - any version - of immigration reform, but the labor movement is not.

For us, the goal of immigration reform is to correct injustice, stop exploitation and prevent the further erosion of standards and wages for workers. Expanding captive work programs does exactly the opposite. And yet somehow, influential corporate lobbyists are being allowed to frame the debate as though those who insist on rights and protections for workers are undermining the interests of immigrants.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Immigration reform is about more than numbers -- it is about people. How we allow immigrant workers to be treated in our country says a lot about our values. Employers have been allowed to set the terms of that treatment for too long, and we know all too well where that has led us. The fate of all working families in our country is inextricably linked. We will rise or fall together, so the terms matter. The labor movement will continue to insist on full rights and protections for our current workforce, while we also demand reforms to ensure dignity and fair treatment for all those who will be recruited to work here in years to come.


This has been reposted from The Huffington Post.

Richard L. Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president in September 2009. He served as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer since 1995. Born in Nemacolin, Pa., on July 24, 1949, Trumka was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1989. At the time of his election to the secretary-treasurer post, he was serving his third term as president of the Mine Workers (UMWA).