Study: Guest-Workers Paid As Poorly As Undocumented Immigrants

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Temporary legal guest-workers are as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers, according to a new Economic Policy Institute report.

Temporary workers are either sponsored through the H-2A or H-2B visa programs designated for agricultural or other lesser-skilled occupations, which grants them legal status. H-2A visas, generally reserved for agricultural work, are valid for one year; H-2B visas, generally used for low-skilled or seasonal work, are valid for ten months, with the chance to extend visa renewals up to three years. H-2 visa holders are considered nonimmigrants and cannot be put on a pathway to citizenship. Though H-2 visa workers can legally work in the country, they’re dependent on employers to keep their visas valid.

All H-2 visa holders “are tied to [individuals’] employers, therefore they cannot change employers or jobs while working in the U.S,” Lauren Apgar, the study author, said during a panel on Thursday.

The report found that “Mexican temporary foreign workers’ employment outcomes are as poor as, or even worse than, those experienced by unauthorized Mexican immigrants. Both groups are disadvantaged when compared with [Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs)],” or green-card holders. According to the report, guest-workers earn about 11 percent less than green-card holders and “their wages do not significantly differ from unauthorized workers’ wages.” The large wage gap points to a possibility of employers who “use fear of deportation to pay lower wages — not just to unauthorized immigrant workers but to temporary foreign workers as well.”

The report found that the monthly compensation levels of H-2A visa workers are closer to those of green-card holders since employers are required by the Department of Labor to provide free housing at no cost, “cooking facilities, reimbursement for travel costs from their home country, and a guarantee of work for at least three-fourths of the contract period” to the worker. But “without this form of compensation, H-2A workers’ monthly earnings are similar to those of unauthorized workers, and both groups’ monthly earnings are less than LPRs’ monthly earnings,” the report stated.

Employer exploitation of guest-workers extends beyond agricultural workers. A 2008 study on forest workers in Oregon and Alabama found, “there is no real difference in the working conditions of undocumented immigrants and guest workers—both groups face labor exploitation. Guest workers in the forest industry, many of whom have no previous work experience or access to social networks in the United States, face extreme isolation at worksites, are beholden to contractors, fear losing their jobs if they complain, and are generally unaware of their basic rights.”

A provision in the 2013 Senate-approved comprehensive immigration bill would have replaced the H-2A program with both a nonimmigrant visa that allows workers to cross the border and stay for up to 60 days to find another job and the “blue card” program that included an eventual pathway to citizenship.