US Guest Worker Program Risks Human Trafficking, Says UN Official

A United Nations envoy said visa programs for short-term unskilled labor are of “of particular concern.”

America’s H-2 visa programs expose foreign guest workers “to the risk of exploitation,” including wage theft and arbitrary firing, according to a new report by the United Nations official in charge of investigating human trafficking.

The official raised “particular concern” about the structure of the program, which employers use to bring in over 150,000 unskilled workers a year for temporary and seasonal stints in the United States.

“Workers holding these temporary visas are tied to a specific employer who can exercise extensive control over them,” wrote Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, whose title is Special Rapporteur in Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. “Some live in deplorable housing conditions, commute long distance and enjoy low benefits. This is a serious problem in itself, but it is exacerbated by the fact that concerned workers may fear that if they report abuses, they will be deported or denied future visa applications.”

Her observations, made during a 10-day official country visit earlier this month, were contained in a report released Monday.

The report echoes a BuzzFeed News investigation last year that found that H-2 workers were often exploited, and sometimes raped or beaten. BuzzFeed News also found that many Americans were denied jobs in favor of guest workers.

President-elect Donald Trump has used the H-2 program, which is partially administered by the Department of Labor, for years. During his presidential campaign alone, companies owned by him or bearing his name sought permission from the DOL to hire at least 247 H-2 guest workers as servers, maids, janitors and gardeners at several of his resort properties and vineyards. His companies have not been accused of abusing the workers.

Since being elected, Trump has named several people to his transition team who have ties to the H-2 program, sparking concerns among worker advocates that his administration may expand the number of guest worker visas issued each year and roll back the regulations meant to protect those workers.

The Trump transition team did not immediately respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about the report.

In a statement, the Department of Labor said that the “U.S. immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed” but noted that the department has “made a serious and sustained effort to strengthen [guestworker] programs in order to protect both U.S. and temporary foreign workers.” Department officials also said that some of those efforts have been “under constant attack from those seeking to undermine these protections.”

Proponents of the program, including employers and visa agents that recruit foreign workers for US companies, maintain that H-2 visas are vital for American businesses in tight labor markets. Without the labor of guest workers, they say, many additional jobs that depend on them will be lost as well. They also maintain that most employers treat their workers well.

The envoy has no actual power over U.S. regulations on visas or labor rules, but a critique from the United Nations has symbolic value.

“The United States holds itself out as a beacon of human rights in the world,” said Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, an organization that advocates on behalf of farmworkers. “When the United Nations raises questions about our implementation of human rights, we should take them very seriously.”

In her report, Giammarinaro — a former Italian judge and government minister who has worked on human trafficking issues for over a decade — recommended that officials make the visas “portable” from one employer to another, in order to “allow workers to change abusive employers.”

She also suggested that confidential procedures be put in place to allow workers to report abusive conditions, and called on the US to ratify several international treaties designed to protect workers, women, and children from human trafficking.

Giammarinaro’s report, which contained an overview of other types of labor trafficking in the U.S., also praised the government for its efforts to protect foreign workers and to educate them about their rights.

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