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Guest workers vulnerable

President Bush touted the proposed new guest-worker program Monday. Critics slam the current program.

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Almost from the start, Fernández realized something was wrong. First there were all the unexpected costs: signing up for the visa ($15), paperwork ($35), a passport ($35), consulate fees ($115), a Mexican government tax ($100), the bus to Monterrey, where the company bus was supposed to pick him and 54 others up ($10), four days waiting for the company bus (hotel $20, food $70), a company blanket ($25) for when he finally got on the bus only to find out it was freezing, and border fees ($6).

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But worse, claims Fernández, was how he was treated by the company - Romero Harvesting - that hired him to pick oranges in Okeechobee, Fla. in late 2004. His first paycheck, after three weeks of 10-hour workdays, came to only $120, a mere fraction of what he was promised. Meanwhile, Fernández says, his guest worker visa and passport were confiscated and held by the company.

DOL maintains that no worker should be paid below the federal minimum wage - currently $5.15 an hour. If any worker is being underpaid, they can call a toll-free number and make a complaint that will be investigated.

But the problem, says Rachel Micah Jones, director of the Center for Migrants' Rights, a workers' rights law firm based in Zacatecas, Mexico, is that guest workers are "terrified" of complaining. "They are scared of retaliation. They are scared to death their boss will report them to the consulate and they will be blacklisted and never get a visa again. So, they keep quiet, even after they have invested all that money to get there and it is horrible," she says.

The main recommendation Schell and others have to better the program is to disassociate workers from individual employers, so that if workers find themselves in dangerous or unacceptable situations they can switch to a new workplace without being penalized. "Individual employers have too much power and leverage," says Schell.

After two months in Okeechobee, only 19 of the 55 original workers were left in the US, despite the six-month contract. Three got sick and were dropped off at the bus station. Two were killed in a car accident. Seven say they were kicked out of the program for complaining, and the rest, fed up, simply picked up and left.

"I was threatened by my bosses," claims Fernandez. "After the two boys died, and they had them in coffins, the boss said to me 'This is how I would like to send back all of those from Zacatecas - so they can't move. So they are quiet.' "

Romero Harvesting refused to answer questions relating to this case, and a lawyer for the company did not return phone calls. A settlement conference, says Schell, is expected in mid-May.

Fernández left the job after four weeks, $500 poorer. His work permit and passport remained with the company. He got a job, illegally, installing sprinklers for a few weeks to recoup some of his money. Then he went home.

These days, he says, he is angry, but he would still do it all over again. "Its safer," he says, of going the legal route. "And its still the correct thing to do."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.