Shellion Parris remembers the excitement she felt when she learned she could get a job in Florida.
It was early 2013, and the thirty-three-year-old single mother of two had been unable to find work in her native Jamaica, where nearly a quarter of women in her age bracket are unemployed. But a recruiter from the United States offered hope. He said the company he represented, Mister Clean, had jobs cleaning Florida hotel rooms and condos, and visas approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for anyone willing to make the plunge.
“He promised a furnished apartment, uniforms, and a good job,” recalls Parris. “It sounded good.” She was so happy to get the job she didn’t worry about the cost: $2,000 for the visa, a ticket to Florida, and a deposit for uniforms. She borrowed the money and left her children with her mother, promising to send part of her pay back every month.
On April 19, 2013, Parris flew to Florida with twelve other new Mister Clean workers, all nervous and excited about the opportunities they imagined awaited them. After the group cleared U.S. Customs, a van picked them up and took them to an apartment in Destin, Florida. There, happiness turned to devastation.
“The thirteen of us were put in a two-bedroom apartment with no furniture except a washer and a dryer and a refrigerator, and no food,” Parris relates. “There were no beds or chairs. We had to sleep on the floor. For the first few weeks, we had to get lettuce and food out of dumpsters to survive.”
Mister Clean charged the workers $375 a month each for the apartment. The uniforms they had paid for turned out to be T-shirts. After deductions, some of the paychecks to Parris and others came to zero dollars and zero cents.
When Parris and her compatriots complained to the owner of Mister Clean about zero-dollar paychecks, “he said if we didn’t stop, he would call the sheriff and ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] would take us back to Jamaica. We had all borrowed money to come here. We couldn’t go back without being able to pay off our debts.”
Parris had landed in debt bondage through H-2B, one of the U.S. government’s guest worker programs. H-2A is for farmworkers; H-2B is for other unskilled workers. The H-1 program lets employers import skilled temporary labor, for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The guest worker programs are overseen by a trio of federal agencies: the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State. In 2014, the programs let employers bring in more than 157,000 unskilled temporary workers—89,274 for farm work and 68,102 for other manual work—and 161,369 skilled temporary workers.
Those numbers will likely be rising, per a provision in the budget bill passed by Congress and signed by the President in mid-December. The provision, introduced by two Democratic and two Republican Senators, would let the agencies renew visas granted to employers for unskilled workers in 2013, 2014, and 2015, without counting them against the H-2B cap.
Abuses of the programs are common and widespread, says Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, because “employers know they can exploit workers here on those visas.” And that is because of the way the programs are set up.
Visas under the guest worker programs belong to the employer, not the employee. So if a worker complains, the employer can fire him or her and call the authorities to deport the troublemaker.
There are regulations to protect workers, but enforcement is so lax and underfunded that guest workers are routinely cheated out of wages, held captive by employers or labor brokers, forced to live in squalid conditions, and denied medical care. Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, speaking on CNN in 2007, called the guest worker program “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
Parris and her companions in Florida soon discovered that Mister Clean kept another group of Jamaicans stashed in Panama City under similar circumstances. Someone there heard about the National Guestworker Alliance.
That group had formed in New Orleans as the Alliance of Guestworkers, following Hurricane Katrina. Six months after the 2005 storm, Decatur Hotels replaced the mostly African American women who had worked in the hotel before the hurricane with guest workers, dropping the pay from $12 to $6 an hour.
Daniel Castellanos, a founding member of the Alliance of Guestworkers, was one of the Decatur Hotel workers. As he told a Congressional committee in 2009, he had been an unemployed engineer when he answered a newspaper ad in Lima, Peru, for construction workers to rebuild New Orleans. He sold household items to raise the $500 needed to apply for the job, and borrowed money at a high interest rate to pay other costs, $4,000 in all.
“Despite the burden of an overwhelming debt, I arrived in New Orleans filled with dreams of being able to dig my family out of their desperate circumstances,” Castellanos testified. “In New Orleans, I found that I had arrived into a nightmare.”
He said the ad from a company named InterJobs had promised workers at least sixty hours of construction work per week at $10 to $15 per hour, plus free housing, free food, and free daily transportation to and from work. Instead, Castellanos was assigned to do maintenance at Decatur Hotels, a chain owned by Patrick Quinn III, for as little as $6.02 per hour, and only about twenty to thirty hours per week.
Castellanos told Congress his group of eighty Peruvians, and 220 more workers from Bolivia and the Dominican Republic “were installed at a semi-destroyed, rat-infested hotel with as many as eight people per room.” There was no transportation to work, and no free food. The families they left behind wondered why they weren’t sending any money home.
After several months, Castellanos and ninety-nine other workers sued Quinn and Decatur Hotels, seeking repayment of the recruiting fees they paid and alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Castellanos was immediately fired. The workers won the first skirmish at federal district court, but ultimately the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided entirely with Quinn and Decatur Hotels.
The lawsuit prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to issue new regulations barring employers or their agents from charging workers recruiting fees for H-2B jobs, a regulation that Jacob Horwitz, organizing director for the National Guestworker Alliance, says is still widely ignored.
When the Alliance was contacted by Parris and her colleagues, it sent an organizer to help organize a public strike. On August 19, 2013, the workers picketed the offices of Mister Clean in front of TV cameras and then went to the Tallahassee office of the Department of Labor to file complaints against the company for involuntary servitude and human trafficking.
The Mister Clean workers were given new temporary visas that allowed them to stay in the United States, but not work, while their complaints and applications for new work visas were being evaluated.
Immigration and guest worker programs have emerged as big issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. A common theme: We don’t want immigrants but are OK with low-wage workers.
Self-styled political outsider and billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who has whipped up an anti-immigrant hysteria with hyperbolic criticisms and promises of mass deportation, makes his money in an industry that relies heavily on guest workers, both directly and indirectly through such companies as Mister Clean. Indeed, Trump’s hotel-related businesses have requested 850 H-2B visas since 2000.
On the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have criticized Bernie Sanders for his opposition to guest worker programs, characterizing his position as anti-immigrant, as has the think tank Center for American Progress. Costa, of the Economic Policy Institute, calls such criticisms “completely twisted,” saying Sanders is consistently pro-immigrant and would stop employers, recruiters, and traffickers from exploiting guest workers.
Exploitation is what they endure. The U.S. Government Accounting Office concluded in 2015 that charging workers high fees resulting in debt bondage was a common abuse in H-2 guest worker programs. And debt bondage, according to the GAO’s report, acts as a gateway to further mistreatment, making workers more willing to put up with bad conditions and abuse.
Between 2009 and 2013, the GAO noted, the U.S. Department of Labor conducted 890 investigations of H-2A employers and sixty-four investigations of H-2B employers. In both programs, employer violations were found more than 90 percent of the time. The most common violations were shorting workers on their pay and improper pre-employment costs, but workers also reported physical abuse and confiscation of passports and documents.
On top of it all, being a guest worker can be dangerous.
In February 2015, inspectors from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found employees of two companies owned by Joseph Kehrer removing asbestos-containing building materials from an old school in Okawville, Illinois, without personal protections or proper tools. Most of Kehrer’s workers were there on H-2B visas, and according to OSHA were not told they were working with asbestos. When inspectors came, Kehrer threatened workers with firing and deportation if they talked, OSHA charged.
Ultimately, Kehrer and his companies were hit with $1.8 million in penalties, still pending, over what OSHA’s David Michaels called “outrageous, illegal behavior.” Kehrer did not return repeated requests for comment.
OSHA had inspected Kehrer’s companies because of repeat safety and health violations dating back to 2007. The company has also been sued by ex-workers for unpaid wages. But federal officials repeatedly approved the company’s request for H-2B visas.
This is not uncommon. In 2012, the National Guestworker Alliance looked at eighteen Louisiana-based seafood processors who used H-2B workers as part of Walmart’s supply chain. Twelve of these had been cited a combined 622 times by OSHA inspectors for conditions that threatened workers’ safety and health.
Shellion Parris with Daniel Castellanos. Photo by National Guestworker Alliance
In some ways, Parris and her co-workers are lucky. They were among only ninety-three H-2 workers granted visas in 2013, allowing them to remain in the United States, in part so they could help prosecutors with human trafficking cases. But Parris’s visa did not allow her to work, and the interest on her debt was piling up. For two years, she waited for a favorable answer to her request for a work visa.
Parris was still waiting for an answer to her application for a work visa when she received an invitation to meet with President Obama at the White House on October 7, as part of the Worker Voice Summit. That was exciting, but the day before, Parris finally received an answer to her visa application: denied. Other former Mister Clean workers got the same answer. She says she shook the President’s hand but was not able to explain her situation. Parris and others are continuing to seek a reversal of their denials.
The letter from Laura Zuchowski, center director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, called Parris “a victim of Involuntary Servitude and Witness Tampering, who possessed information, was helpful, and has continued to be helpful in the investigation of Mister Clean’s unlawful labor practices.” But it denied her visa application because she had not established having suffered permanent or serious harm.
Parris, who refers to being “held as a slave with debt and threats,” is baffled that Customs does not see this as harm. She thinks the government needs to play a much more aggressive role to stop abuses. “They should be a watchdog over employers,” she says. “They should make sure promises are carried out. They should not treat us like cattle or abuse us. They should protect people when they report abuse.”
Jim Knoepp, deputy legal director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees, having seen similar situations before. “It sends the message to workers that they don’t want to complain, because government won’t protect them,” he says. “What they need to do is get out of debt, and they need to work here to do that, so they better stick it out and work with a bad employer.”
On paper, guest worker programs have a host of regulations to protect workers. Employers seeking visas must certify that they can’t find workers in the United States and that guest workers will not be used to replace striking workers. They must agree to pay at least the prevailing wages, not seek fees from prospective workers, and follow other applicable laws.
But Knoepp says there is little to no oversight to verify that employers are following the rules.
Government officials generally do not have information about past violations when deciding whether to certify companies for guest worker visas, according to a Department of Homeland Security official, who didn’t want to be named because she is not authorized to talk on the subject. They rely on information submitted by companies and on a web-based tool that uses commercially available data.
“It may not be evident whether a particular petitioner has a history of violations,” the official said. And even then it may not be enough to revoke or deny requests for visas. “It depends on whether the violations indicate the company cannot legally carry out the business activities stated in the petition, and whether the company adequately rebuts such concerns.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, an employer can be barred from the H-2B program only after demonstrating “a pattern or practice of acts that shows a significant failure of the employer to comply with various requirements of the program,” and then the employer can be excluded from the program for only two years.
It is hard to demonstrate a pattern or practice, however, without investigations. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is supposed to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, investigated only sixty-four H-2B employers in four years, although in 87 percent of those cases they collected back wages and penalties for workers, totaling $1.1 million. And National Guestworker Alliance spokesman Stephen Boykewich says a bipartisan group of Senators has blocked the department from spending money to reform and enforce H-2 rules.
Knoepp cites another example. In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Candy Brand, LLC, an Arkansas-based tomato grower and processor, alleging that hundreds of Mexican workers who labored under H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers were underpaid, charged illegal expenses, and denied overtime pay. In 2011, the company agreed to pay 1,800 workers a total of $1.5 million in back wages and damages, then went into bankruptcy and assumed a new name. Knoepp says it remains one of the nation’s top ten users of H-2A workers.
“That worries me,” Knoepp says. “Visas should be a privilege for employers, one they can’t get if they don’t follow the law.”
Knoepp calls for two simple reforms to curtail guest worker program abuses. The first is to make employers legally liable if workers are charged recruitment fees. The second is to make the work visas portable so workers can change employers if faced with fraud or abuse. But he thinks that, given the political climate, even these simple changes will be difficult to pass.
Peter Downs is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.