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Posts Tagged ‘low-wage jobs’

Modern-day Braceros: The United States has 450,000 guestworkers in low-wage jobs and doesn’t need more

Friday, March 31st, 2017

On César Chávez Day, lost in all the news about the Trump administration’s criminalization and scapegoating of immigrants and attempts to withhold federal funds from cities with policies that protect immigrants, are the 450,000 low-wage-earning migrant workers employed in the United States through the H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 visa temporary foreign worker programs. Many of the workers in these temporary visa programs are in a precarious situation and vulnerable to abuse and retaliation at the hands of employers and their agents.

These “guestworkers” often arrive in the United States in debt, and are tied to and controlled by their employers. Research shows guestworkers are often paid lower wages than similarly situated U.S. workers, and earn wages similar to those of undocumented immigrant workers. This is reminiscent of the Bracero Program—a large guestworker program in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that admitted hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to work temporarily on U.S. farms and in other low-wage occupations—and which César Chávez fought against. Chávez knew that exploited, indentured, and underpaid workers would degrade labor standards for all workers in the United States, including immigrants. After scandals, political pressure, and President John F. Kennedy campaigning against it, the program was terminated in 1964.

Sadly, America has not learned its lesson. The United States is repeating an historical mistake, once again admitting large numbers of guestworkers in low-wage occupations. With the possibility looming that the Trump administration will reduce enforcement and oversight in guestworker programs—which will be further exacerbated if Trump’s proposed 21 percent budget cuts to the Department of Labor (DOL) are enacted—the United States may once again face scandals like the one where the bodies of guestworkers who died in a traffic accident were not immediately claimed, because farm labor contractors and agricultural growers argued over who their employer was.

A snapshot of today’s low-wage guestworker programs

The H-2A program allows employers to hire workers from abroad for agricultural jobs that normally last less than one year, including picking crops and sheepherding. There is no numerical limit on H-2A visas, and in recent years, the H-2A program has grown sharply, doubling over the past five years to 134,000 workers, and accounting for nearly 10 percent of the crop labor force.

H-2B workers are employed in seasonal (nine months or less) low-wage nonagricultural jobs like landscaping, forestry, food processing, hospitality, and construction. There is an annual numerical limit of 66,000, but workers often stay longer than one year or have their stay extended. Despite the cap on the H-2B program, a “returning worker exemption” allowed 85,000 new visas to be issued in 2016.

The J-1 visa is part of the Exchange Visitor Program, a cultural exchange program run by the State Department that has 14 different J-1 programs, including programs that permit Fulbright Scholars to come to the United States, but also five de facto low-wage guestworker programs. J-1 workers in low-wage occupations are au pairs, camp counselors, maids and housekeepers, lifeguards, and staff restaurants, ice cream shops and amusement parks and national parks like Yellowstone. Only one of the five programs is numerically limited: the Summer Work Travel program is capped at 109,000 per year.

Numerous media reports and legal proceedings have documented how H-2A, H-2B, and J-1 guestworkers are treated poorly. For example, Buzzfeed News asked whether H-2A and H-2B are “The New American Slavery?” and Politico Magazine reported this week that the State Department covered up and lied about thousands of complaints received from J-1 workers. Immigrant worker advocates have been sounding the alarm bells about all three programs for years, but the employers who hire guestworkers continue to lobby for more visas and fewer rules that protect workers.

So, how many workers are employed in these three programs? Calculating the number of workers is not straightforward, and the government does not publish reliable data by visa. Using the same methodology I developed in this report, I estimate in Table 1 below that there were over 270,000 low-wage workers employed in the H-2A and H-2B programs in 2016.

 
Table 2 shows that the number of J-1 workers in low-wage occupations was 167,960 in 2015, and the number in 2016 was likely similar (2016 data on J-1 are not available).

Modern-day low-wage guestworker programs larger than Bracero at its peak

The grand total of guestworkers employed in low-wage occupations in all three programs in 2016 is 438,190 (Table 3), close to half a million, but many were not employed in the United States for the entire year. On average, H-2A workers were in jobs certified to last for seven months, more than half of the H-2B workers counted were employed for the entire year, and most J-1 workers counted were employed for four months, but one-third worked for the entire year.

Comparable estimates for the number of temporary Bracero workers are difficult to come by. The most commonly cited statistic is that there were almost 450,000 Braceros “admitted” in the peak year of 1956, meaning that this many workers authorized through the Bracero program entered the United States. However, using admissions to count unique workers, as many reports have done, is misleading. For example, the number of H-2A workers admitted in 2015 was more than 2.5 times the number of visas (a proxy for the number of workers) issued that year, in part because some H-2A workers live in Mexico and commute daily to jobs in the Arizona and California deserts, generating an individual, counted admission each time they enter the United States.

A Bracero worker’s job could last from six weeks to six months, also making it difficult to count the actual number of workers. To get a better measure of how many Bracero workers there were and what their impact was on the labor market, the DOL calculated the average annual number of Bracero workers, generating an estimate of full-time equivalent workers. The table below, from a 1973 study, shows 125,700 full-time equivalent (FTE) Bracero workers in 1956, the peak year for admissions, suggesting a ratio of 3.5 Bracero admissions per FTE job. The peak year for FTE Braceros was in 1959, at 135,900. (Ignore the number of “immigrants” below, which represents Mexican nationals who became permanent residents in those years.)

A similar “annual average” calculation of temporary, low-wage foreign workers present in the United States in 2016 would be lower than 438,000; but how much lower depends on the length of time that each individual worked in the United States. However, no matter how you count, there’s no question that there are more low-wage guestworkers today than there were Bracero guestworkers in the peak year for either Bracero admissions or FTE workers.

Lobbying blitz around guestworker programs is already underway, and will be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement

Through an executive order, President Trump has already redefined the priorities for deportation so broadly that nearly every unauthorized immigrant is now considered a priority for detection and removal, and his administration is expected to step up enforcement against unauthorized migration on the southern U.S. border and at worksites within the interior of the United States. This will impact the five percent of the U.S. labor force that is comprised of unauthorized immigrant workers. Two-thirds of the entire unauthorized population has lived in the United States for at least 10 years, and unauthorized migration over the Mexico-U.S. border is at historically low levels, which means the Trump administration will mostly be trying to remove long-term residents who are integrated into the United States through employment and family ties.

If a significant number of unauthorized immigrants are removed and fewer new workers arrive, employers are likely to request more guestworkers, particularly in agriculture, landscaping, hospitality, and construction. Employers seeking new workers are likely to pressure the Trump administration and Congress to create new temporary foreign worker programs and/or expand the current programs, as well as to loosen and curb the enforcement of rules that protect migrant and U.S. workers. Specifically, employers are pressing Congress to eliminate the requirement to provide housing for H-2A workers and they want to remove the cap on H-2B visas.

This corporate lobbying blitz has already gotten underway, as many low-wage employers have become addicted to having indentured employees who can’t complain or legally search for a better U.S. job. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal editorial board called for more guestworkers in low-wage jobs, warning of a “growing labor shortage” in agriculture and construction. But they failed to mention that the earnings of most farmworkers are still extremely low and that the latest JOLTS data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there are three unemployed construction workers for every job opening—not exactly signs of a dire shortage.

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have a soft spot for employers seeking low-wage guestworkers. At a recent hearing, Republican Governor Sonny Perdue and Democratic Senator Kristen Gillibrand discussed and described the H-2A program as too “cumbersome” for farm employers, even though there is no limit on the number of H-2A workers they can hire and DOL has processed 99 percent of applications in a timely way in 2017. Low-wage nonfarm employers persuaded 32 legislators to sign a bipartisan letterasking the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to audit the H-2B program in an effort to build support to expand the program (by exempting returning workers from the 66,000 a year cap). Republican-sponsored legislation to do just that—exempt returning H-2B workers from the annual cap—was introduced in the House this month, with two Democratic co-sponsors.

Does the United States need to expand its modern-day Bracero programs?

Changing and loosening the rules in work visa programs could lead to a quick doubling of the number of low-wage guestworkers in the United States. Is one million low-paid, exploitable, indentured workers—who have no path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship—what the U.S. economy needs? César Chávez would say, “No!” Migrants who come to the United States and contribute to the economy should be afforded civil, human, and labor rights, and a chance to become American.

Furthermore, the number of jobs for workers with a high school degree or less has not yet recovered to the pre-recession levels of late 2007, and wages for less-educated workers have stagnated. In other words, labor market indicators do not suggest the United States needs more low-wage guestworkers. Then why are employers and Congress fixated on this? Changing the low-wage labor market in this manner deserves a fully informed public debate and Congress should be held accountable. Any expansion of low-wage guestworker programs should not occur through deregulation at the federal agency level or via must-pass omnibus appropriations legislation, as has occurred time and time again over the last decade.

This article was originally posted at EPI.org on March 31, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Daniel Costa has been director of immigration law and policy research since 2013, having joined EPI in 2010 as an immigration policy analyst. An attorney, his current areas of research include a wide range of labor migration issues, including the management of temporary foreign worker programs, both high- and less-skilled migration, immigrant workers’ rights, and forced migration, including refugee and asylum issues and the global migration crisis.

We Are Worth More

Friday, May 17th, 2013

jack-metzgarLast month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago.   Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.

A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will.   And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim.   This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.”   You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.

“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image.  But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them.  Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action.  It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly.  In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”

Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions.  I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then.  But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.

For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place amongWalmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences.   But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.

There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers.  He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it.  In a 2005 book,The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer.   According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority  or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.

Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case.  There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,”if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.

A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another.  That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well.  It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.

In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition.  Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.

Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be.   It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another.   To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process.  But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them.  The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.

This article was originally printed on Working-Class Perspectives on May 6, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jack Metzgar is a retired Professor of Humanities from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. His research interests include labor politics, working-class voting patterns, working-class culture, and popular and political discourse about class.

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