Guest workers vulnerable

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

Eleven dollars and five cents per hour. It was more than Francisco Fernández Sánchez had ever made in all his years working as an electrician in Zacatecas, Mexico - and it was completely legal. A recruiter was in town taking down names of those interested. Mr. Fernandez signed up and waited. Two months later, he got a phone call.

That was how Fernández's journey to the US on a much-coveted guest worker visa began. But it would end badly less than a year later, with Fernández $500 poorer, humiliated, angry - and in the process of suing his former Florida employer in a federal court.

As US lawmakers gear up for more debate this week on whether to grow the guest worker program as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, immigrant-rights advocates warn of problems with the current guest-worker system. They point to widespread cheating and abuse of migrant workers that continues due largely to lack of US government oversight of corrupt firms, and say this should be addressed in any upcoming guest-worker legislation.

"It's crucial to establish guidelines for preventing abuses," says Robert Willis, a lawyer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the union representing migrant farm workers. "If we allow guest workers to come work, we also need to treat them right," he says. "Just creating the program is not enough."

The proposed Senate bill calls for allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the US for five years or more to apply for a three-year guest-worker visa, which could be renewed if they paid a fine and passed a background check. Other would-be immigrants wishing to find work in the US would be able to apply for the same guest-worker visa, which in this case would be capped at 400,000 annually.

After six years, if these guest-worker visa holders demonstrate English proficiency and pay certain fines and back taxes, they could apply for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship. This bill, if passed, would create the largest guest-worker program since the Bracero program brought 4.6 million Mexican agricultural workers into the country between 1942 and 1960.

President Bush touted this guest-worker program in California Monday.

Under the present system, the US Department of Labor (DOL), working together with Homeland Security, grants up to 66,000 non-agricultural (H2-B) guest-worker visas a year and an unlimited number of agricultural (H2-A) visas. These visas are valid for up to 364 days.

A full 75 percent of all guest worker visas - last year there were almost 120,000 in total - are given to Mexicans, say US officials.

Many of these guest workers attest to positive experiences: They make money legally, they get benefits, are treated well, and receive a ride home back to their families at the end of the job.

But Fernández's negative experience is not unique.

"Today, broken promises are the norm when it comes to guest worker visas. Despite pages of regulations, oversight is lacking, and workers are often cheated out of money and mistreated," says Greg Schell, a lawyer at the Migrants Farmworker Justice Project, a Florida-based legal advocacy group. Mr. Schell is filing a class-action suit on behalf of Fernández and 15 other guest workers.

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).

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.

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