Recruiter abuses in H-2A agriculture guest worker program

“Low Pay and Broken Promises Greet Guest Workers” in the New York Times reports abuses on the United States guest worker program for agricultural workers, the H-2A program. I have posted on H-2A workers before, and also on a special H-2B forestry workers program. The articles focuses on recruitment abuses. “The guest worker program is not for contractors who feel they might be able to find work for other people,” said Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s for people who have a compelling need to bring in workers from abroad. There’s an enormous incentive for contractors to bring in as many people as possible, even when there isn’t enough work, because they often make money from recruitment fees.”
The article says, “Each year 120,000 foreign workers receive visas to do farm work or other low-skilled labor, usually for three to nine months. These programs grew out of the World War II bracero program, in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans worked on farms and railroads, often in deplorable conditions.”
Labor experts say employers abuse guest workers far more than other workers because employers know they can ship them home the moment they complain. They also know these workers cannot seek other jobs if they are unhappy.
“I’d say a substantial majority of U.S. guest workers experience some abuses with their paycheck,” said David Griffith, a professor in the anthropology department at East Carolina University and author of the new book “American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market.” “It’s the recruitment process especially where they get cheated.”
The abuses take many forms. Guest workers often pay exorbitant fees and are frequently given fewer weeks of work and lower wages than promised. Many employers fail to make good on their commitment to pay transportation costs. The Thai workers, who were supposed to be paid $16,000 a year for three years, ended up earning a total of just $1,400 to $2,400. Most of the Thai workers had their passports taken away after they arrived, leaving them trapped.
“The program has been rife with abuses, even during the best of times,” said Cindy Hahamovitch, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, who is writing a book about guest workers. “There will never be enough inspectors to check every labor camp, contract and field.”
The article in full:


To a rice farmer from Thailand making $500 a year, the recruiter’s pitch was hard to resist — three years of farm work in North Carolina that would pay more than 30 times as much as he earned at home.
The pitch was so persuasive that the farmer, Worawut Khansamrit, put his farm up as collateral to pay the recruiter $11,000 to become a guest worker. “The amount of money they promised was very attractive,” said Mr. Khansamrit, a slight, soft-spoken 40-year-old with a 15-year-old daughter he wants to send to college.
But after he arrived in North Carolina with 30 other Thai workers, he found there was only about a month’s work. He was then taken to New Orleans to remove debris from a hotel damaged by Hurricane Katrina — work he says he was never paid for. This month, he and other Thai workers filed a federal lawsuit asserting that they were victims of illegal trafficking.
Mr. Khansamrit’s tale highlights the abuses that many guest workers face at a time when President Bush and many in Congress are pushing to expand the guest worker program as part of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
Each year 120,000 foreign workers receive visas to do farm work or other low-skilled labor, usually for three to nine months. These programs grew out of the World War II bracero program, in which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans worked on farms and railroads, often in deplorable conditions.
Labor experts say employers abuse guest workers far more than other workers because employers know they can ship them home the moment they complain. They also know these workers cannot seek other jobs if they are unhappy.
“I’d say a substantial majority of U.S. guest workers experience some abuses with their paycheck,” said David Griffith, a professor in the anthropology department at East Carolina University and author of the new book “American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market.” “It’s the recruitment process especially where they get cheated.”
The abuses take many forms. Guest workers often pay exorbitant fees and are frequently given fewer weeks of work and lower wages than promised. Many employers fail to make good on their commitment to pay transportation costs. The Thai workers, who were supposed to be paid $16,000 a year for three years, ended up earning a total of just $1,400 to $2,400. Most of the Thai workers had their passports taken away after they arrived, leaving them trapped.
“The program has been rife with abuses, even during the best of times,” said Cindy Hahamovitch, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, who is writing a book about guest workers. “There will never be enough inspectors to check every labor camp, contract and field.”
For decades, farmers, tree-planting companies, and hotel and restaurant owners have argued that they need guest workers, citing a shortage of Americans willing to fill jobs in their industries. In Washington, many supporters of an expanded guest worker program say they want to strengthen protections to curb abusive treatment.
“The business community supports the idea that these temporary workers should have the exact same employment protections as American workers,” said Randel Johnson, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group lobbying to expand the guest worker program. “When an employer can’t find an American worker to fill a job, the economy is helped if the employer can find someone else.”
Critics, including many labor unions and immigrant groups, say employers exaggerate the labor shortage because they are eager for cheap, docile, temporary labor from abroad. The critics say there would not be such a shortage of American workers if employers offered a living wage for these jobs.
In Congress, proposals to expand protections for guest workers include a provision to bar employers from retaliating when these workers protest and one that would let them sue in federal court over contract violations.
Earlier this month, Mr. Khansamrit and 21 other guest workers sued several labor contractors and farmers in federal court in North Carolina, accusing them of fraud, breach of contract, minimum wage violations and illegal trafficking.
The lawsuit, brought by Legal Aid of North Carolina, asserts that the contractors received recruitment fees that are illegal under Thai law, provided far less work than promised, and violated federal law by not paying transportation costs from abroad and not paying three-fourths of the wages promised.
“None of them gave us what they promised,” said Pradit Wiangkham, 42, a Thai electrician turned guest worker. Mr. Wiangkham also worked unpaid in New Orleans, where he said the contractor ordered the workers to sleep in a foul-smelling hotel that had no electricity, lights, hot water or potable water. In North Carolina, the living arrangements were not much better; at times 33 Thai workers slept in a storage shed behind the labor contractor’s house, the workers said.
The workers’ lawyers say federal officials should have detected that something was awry because the contractors were applying to bring in so many Asian workers to work just three months.
“Why would someone want to bring workers from Asia all the way to the East Coast for such a short-term, low-wage job?” said Lori Elmer, a lawyer for the workers. “They couldn’t break even unless there was fraud.”
Seo Homsombath, the president of Million Express Manpower, a small labor contracting company that works closely with recruiters overseas, did not respond to faxes and a letter to his home in North Carolina. Roy Raynor, another principal, declined comment.
But in a separate lawsuit, Mr. Raynor testified that Mr. Homsombath and he were supposed to receive payments from the recruiters in Thailand. He said he was to receive $1,200 for each worker, ostensibly for training them to pick cucumbers.
David James, a Labor Department spokesman, said the department was investigating whether the contractor failed to provide adequate wages and housing and failed to pay for transportation. He said the department had no rules regarding the payment of recruitment fees overseas.
Advocates say the Labor Department should require employers to repay recruitment fees and transportation costs from abroad when such costs effectively bring the workers’ wages below the minimum wage.
The Thai guest workers are not alone in their complaints. Legal Aid of North Carolina has also sued on behalf of three Indonesians.
Several of the Indonesians and Thais have applied for special visas available to workers who have been trafficked illegally. With such visas, they hope to work in the United States to repay their debts.
“I felt completely defrauded,” said Indra Budiawan, who had been a waiter in Indonesia. “They never gave me any work after I arrived.”
Mr. Budiawan, 28, paid $6,000 — 10 times his annual pay — putting up his in-laws’ ancestral land as collateral after a recruiter showed him a brochure about farm work in North Carolina and about the good housing and food that guest workers receive. “When I was at the airport in Jakarta, I felt very happy,” he said. “I felt extremely proud about the job I would have in America, given that there is so much poverty and unemployment in Indonesia.”
But when he arrived, the head of the GTN Employment Agency, Leeta Kang, told him there were no farm jobs. He was taken to a sign-making store that was the contractor’s main business. There, Mr. Budiawan slept on the storage room floor, waiting for work that never materialized.
Mr. Budiawan told Ms. Kang that he wanted to leave. But he said she demanded $2,000 for a return ticket and for the passport she had taken from him. After two weeks without work, Mr. Budiawan fled. He is now living in Miami with two other Indonesian guest workers.
Mr. Budiawan called his father-in-law, whose land was used as collateral, to explain his predicament. “I felt very ashamed,” he said. “Everyone was depending on me. And now the bank has taken steps to repossess our ancestral land.”
Ms. Kang insisted that it was not her fault there was no work for Mr. Budiawan. “He showed up way behind schedule,” she said. “By the time he arrived, the farm owner had already canceled everything.”
Ms. Kang said a squash farmer had completed his harvest and no longer needed Mr. Budiawan. She said she had tried in vain to contact the recruiters in Indonesia to alert them that she no longer needed Mr. Budiawan and several others.
“The agents in Indonesia were obviously just trying to get money out of them,” Ms. Kang said. “Whatever these people paid, none of it went to us.”
Mike Moore, the squash farmer, said Ms. Kang had asked him to apply for far more guest workers than he needed. “She told me to take 50,” he said. “I told her, ‘I might need five. I might need 25.’ She said, ‘That’s no problem. Even if you don’t need them, we have plenty of work for them in other places.’ ”
Some experts say abuses are more likely when contractors, rather than farmers, bring in guest workers.
“The guest worker program is not for contractors who feel they might be able to find work for other people,” said Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s for people who have a compelling need to bring in workers from abroad. There’s an enormous incentive for contractors to bring in as many people as possible, even when there isn’t enough work, because they often make money from recruitment fees.”
Experts say that in some states, contractors bring in less than 10 percent of the guest workers, while in other states, they bring in half.
Like the other Thai guest workers, Chinnawat Kompeemay, who ran a grocery store near Bangkok, is in limbo, living in temporary housing in Virginia.
“All I wanted was to provide my children with a better education and living standards,” he said. “If my children get the education I want them to have, they won’t be tricked the same way. They won’t be taken advantage of like their father.”

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