by/por: Ermesto Navarro
Everybody in El Chalum that wanted to plant trees in the United States that year were required to attend a meeting by the U.S. reforestation company. They were to pay for their own rides there, and they were to leave the deeds of their homes or lands with the representatives of the company before they could go to the United States as legal migrant workers.
In the lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in Atlanta against Eller and Sons by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this constitutes ‘force labor and/or trafficking into servitude.’ The legal action represent a class of over 1,500 migrant workers from Guatemala and Mexico, who worked for the company during a six-year period.
Workers were required to leave the deeds to their property as collateral for Eller and Sons to be assured that the workers would remain under the control of and in the employ of the company, but such tactics meet the definition of forced labor or human trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
The workers were, no surprise here, paid far less than the prevailing wages in the same area, $25 for a 12 hour workday in the worst cases. The attorney for the company denies the practice, not a surprise either, according to reporter Alejandro Leal of the Cincinnati CityBeat, who wrote about Eller and Sons Trees and their problems with ‘legal’ immigrant workers.
The lawsuit raises questions about whether the immigrants that enter the country legally to work may fare even worse conditions that those who enter the country illegally to, presumably, entertain the same jobs.
“The H-2B program is quite a lot like indentured servitude in that you’re only permitted to work for one employer,” says Andrew Turner, an attorney with the SPLC, in the article by Mr. Leal. The drawback, the lawyer explains, is that “you don’t have the collateral benefit to the indentured servant in American history of actually being able to earn your permanence.” When the visa expires, the workers must return to their home country. “When the law isn’t complied with, what you have is not just a harm to the migrant workers, but harm to the American workers who are supposed to be protected by the limits on the guest worker system as well,” says the attorney, according to the Cincinnati publication.
In theory, companies in industries that want to import labor through the H-2B program must first protect the domestic workforce by paying the guest workers at or above the prevailing minimum wage (normally higher than the federally mandated $5.15 per hour). This rate is determined by a U.S. Department of Labor survey and is calculated to reflect what would be the minimum rate at which domestic workers would be willing to work. Companies hiring H-2B workers, by law, must pay them at this rate.
The Bush administration’s guest worker program, critics contend, uses the H-2B visa model, which has proven very problematic when legal immigration status is tied to the whim of one employer, who can then violate the worker’s rights under labor laws, and to resist makes it tantamount to a deportation by the employer.
An illegal immigrant pays a smuggler between $3,000 to $5,000 to come to the United States, compared to the $1,000 that legal migrant guest workers spend on plane ticket, visa and passport costs.
In the past, economists contend, when immigration was not at today’s rates, such a program could have been enticing enough to control the flow of workers across the border. Nowadays, they argue, a potential illegal immigrant already counts with an information gravepine that lets them compare and make an educated guess.
In today’s context, they say, the one certainty that a government program can deliver- the tranquility that comes with legality –is meaningless. There is a market already in place, and all the government can attempt to do is to regulate it. Once the costs of running it underground are already factored in, the theory goes, nothing else can be done but to apply more time and effort, distracting sorely needed resources.
Any future government guest-worker program would have to compete at least with minimum black market rates, let alone minimum wage requirements, in order to effectively separate the immigrant labor force from the more dangerous smuggling operations that require law enforcement patrol more urgently.
With populaton rates decreasing in the U.S. and Europe, increasing everywhere else in the world, and an aging baby-boom generation, the question is no more about taking sides but about accomodating the inevitable in the best way possible. Such an effort on the part of the government, then, would not be as much for the sake of those coming in, as immigration foes usually see them. Failure to do so would make the current porous, illegal border mess seem like the good old times.