H2 Work Visas: A Hidden Gate to Labor Trafficking in the U.S
When we think about human trafficking, we often think of sex trafficking - and for the right reasons, of course, especially when millions of people are trafficked each year and with many of its cases being related to sex crimes and slavery. But there is another side to human trafficking, one that is less visible: labor trafficking. Labor trafficking has many faces, one of which is commonly seen in systematic exploitation of foreign workers who come to the United States under the nation’s H2 work visas. H2 work visas are also known as the guest workers program, permitting employers to hire foreign workers to come to the United States temporarily for work. The H2 guest workers program is opening doors to labor trafficking, and too many victims are falling through the cracks of the United States’ guest worker system. Since 2007, Polaris has identified 30,000 human trafficking and labor exploitation cases in the United States. In approximately 18% of these cases, Polaris was able to determine that at least one victim of the situation had a temporary work visa.
Since 2007, Polaris has identified 30,000 human trafficking and labor exploitation cases in the United States. In approximately 18% of these cases, Polaris was able to determine that at least one victim of the situation had a temporary work visa.
U.S. employers rely heavily on private individuals or third party agencies to find and recruit guest workers, but the commencement of the exploitation of guest workers happens before they arrive in the United States. It begins with the initial recruitment in their home country, increasing the risk for vulnerability and abuse in the United States, as many victims become unfamiliar with their surroundings when they enter the nation. U.S. labor trafficking is becoming a largely unregulated recruiting business. With more than 100,000 such workers, millions of dollars in recruiting fees are at risk for the recruiting agencies, making it quite a lucrative human trafficking business. The financial gain provides a powerful incentive for recruiters and agencies to import as many workers as possible, with disregard to the impact on workers and their families. Labor recruiters usually charge workers thousands of dollars in fees to cover travel, visas, and other costs, including profits for the recruiters. Those who live in poverty are more likely to obtain high interest loans to compensate the fees. In addition, they are sometimes required to leave the deed of their home or car as collateral to fulfill the terms of labor contracts.
Labor recruiters usually charge workers thousands of dollars in fees to cover travel, visas, and other costs, including profits for the recruiters
H2 guest workers are becoming disposable workers of the U.S. economy with no pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. They work mostly in the construction, hospitality, seasonal work, and agricultural industries. Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not have the fundamental protection of a competitive labor market. With limited access to legal resources and protection, guest workers often fall prey to unlawful recruitment and abuse. Coming from a foreign country, victims lack the familiarity of their surroundings, laws and rights. Add on the challenges of language barriers and cultural understanding, recruiters and traffickers have the advantage of control and manipulation. Since guest workers are also bound to one employer, they are often cheated out of wages, held captive with limited access to the outside world, forced to live in unsanitary conditions, withheld from visa documents and identification, and are often threatened with deportation and blacklisting.
Guest workers are legally sanctioned by U.S. immigration and employment laws to come to the nation to work. The civil and criminal liability for labor trafficking is spread among many parties, which can frequently make the situation more complex and cause misunderstanding. Recruiters hire guest workers from different countries through legal means and are assisted by lawyers to oversee the visa process. The imbalance of power between employer and worker increases the vulnerability and abuse because guest workers are linked to a single employer, which cannot be changed even if they are mistreated, and because of their lack of understanding of the law, they are not able to assert their workplace rights.
The imbalance of power between employer and worker increases the vulnerability and abuse because guest workers are linked to a single employer.
According to Polaris, in 2014, more than 500,000 work visas were issued to guest workers in the United States. To ensure guest workers are not becoming victims of human trafficking, Polaris recommends that the U.S. federal policy should do the following: prohibit the application of recruitment fees to individuals who have obtained a temporary visa; require employers to provide complete and accurate contracts directly to workers in a language the worker understands; require foreign labor recruiters to register with the U.S. government and encourage companies to use registered labor recruiters; and ensure that temporary visa holders can change employers without losing their visa status. Besides policy changes, victims of labor trafficking and labor exploitation will also need services such as shelter, food and clothing, and medical care to ensure they receive a healthy recovery from the abuse they’ve suffered.
Besides policy changes, victims of labor trafficking and labor exploitation will also need services such as shelter, food and clothing, and medical care to ensure they receive a healthy recovery from the abuse they’ve suffered.
While there is a growing awareness of sex trafficking, it is also important for frontline professionals and healthcare providers to be educated and trained in identifying victims of labor trafficking and labor exploitation. As a community, let’s continue to encourage policy change through the Department of Labor, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and state labor agencies to ensure they are assisting guest workers with the appropriate immigration remedies to safeguard employment and labor rights and to also recognize that guest workers may be entitled to other forms of redress when identified as trafficking survivors. Guest workers make a valuable contribution to the United States by providing diversity in the workforce and encouraging economic growth - let’s make them feel welcomed.
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About the Author
Gaochen Xiong recently graduated with her Master’s in Public and Nonprofit Administration. As a first generation born Hmong American, who is dedicated to paving the way for her children and future generations, she is excited to expand her knowledge and fight for justice through Dressember. She’s an avid reader, lover of all things arts and crafts, and enjoys experiencing new adventures and traveling with her family.