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The H-1B Worker Program Is Creating Modern Day Indentured Servants

modern day slaveryThis week the US Senate has started to debate immigration reform. This bill is large and very controversial. Everyone seems to agree, including me, that we need to create a real pathway to citizenship.  We need to welcome immigrants to spur our economy, not to mention the additional tax revenues.

Earlier this week I penned a post about some of the possible issues I found in the immigration reform process.  One of the things I found issue with is the H-1B visa program, which allows people to live and work in the United States on a temporary basis.  My problem is that the guest worker program is a lot like indentured slavery.

Starting in the early 1700’s, immigrants have come to the United States to chase the American Dream.  Often there were huge fees upfront for passage to the US; and in many cases, immigrants were required to work off their debt as “indentured servants” once they got here.  Of course that was ancient history, right? WRONG!

This type of action is happening every single day here in the United States.  The only difference is that these are not just low-wage workers or migrant farm workers.  These are highly educated, highly skilled workers.

Today the Boston Globe broke a story about how H-1B’s are being used to bring teachers into Boston schools (The strange saga of Filipino workers, American schools, and H-1B visas).  This is one area of the new immigration bill that needs to be addressed.  People are being forced to pay thousands of dollars just for the opportunity to work in the United States.  They are paying to become slaves of their employer and of their employment brokers.

“First, a $50 interview fee. Then, $5,000 to process their H-1B guest worker visas. After they borrowed the money — a year’s salary in the Philippines — she demanded an additional, unexpected fee: $7,500. The teachers were shocked, but they paid, lest they lose what they had already invested. This whole pattern of exploitation, spelled out in court documents, didn’t stop there. Hours after they landed in the United States, she forced them to sign a contract agreeing to hand over 10 percent of their salary during their second year on the job.”

That is over $12,000 dollars just for the chance for this recruiter to attempt to get you a job.  Then after you get a job as a teacher, you are forced to pay an additional 10% of your salary back to the recruiter.  All of this for a job as a teacher whose starting pay is on average $30,377.

Oh but the story gets worse.   Most are told that this $12,000 will buy them a three-year work visa, when in fact that is not the case.

“Instead of securing three-year work visas, she (Navarro) got them visas for one year, and charged a fee for renewal.”

Company StoreIn the Globe story, they highlighted one recruiter, Lourdes Navarro.  They also found that “Navarro forced the teachers to live together in an apartment complex where they paid hundreds of dollars above market rate”.  For those who know their history, this was a very common tactic used by mill owners in the early 1900’s.  Workers lived in mill housing, shopped at mill owned stores, and racked up massive debt to the mill owners.  The workers’ pay was so low that they could never pay off their food and housing debts, making them slaves to the mills.

Teachers are not the only workers paying massive amounts of money to get the chance to work here.

Close to Slavery,” a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, documents Jamaicans who paid $1,500 to clean hotels, Mexicans who paid $3,000 to pick tomatoes, Indian welders who paid $14,000 to fix ships after Hurricane Katrina. (The Indians thought they were getting green card cards. Instead, they got 10-month H-2B visas.)”

There are countless horror stories of these workers being forced to work 20+ hour shifts for minimum wage.  They have no recourse because the employer holds the visa.  If they speak out against their employer they are fired. If they try to form a union, they are fired.   Then they are reported to Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE) as being here illegally. They have nowhere to go.

Thankfully, there are many people out there watching out for these workers.

“With support from the American Federation of Teachers and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Cruz and her colleagues sued Navarro and won $4.5 million.”

Will this new immigration bill stop the forced slavery of thousands of people who only want to live and work in the United States?  There is hope.

 “It regulates recruiters for the first time, and makes them pay a bond to cover workers’ wages if anything goes wrong. It also prohibits charging workers most fees. Employers are the ones who should pay.”

We must be very careful in the way this new legislation handles this very complex issue. Trading a corrupt recruiter for an oppressive employer does not mean the problem is solved.  This could turn into the same situation that workers in the mills faced over a hundred years ago.



About Matt Murray

Matt Murray is the creator and an author on the NH Labor News. He is a union member and advocate for labor and progressive politics. He also works with other unions and members to help spread our message. Follow him on Twitter @NHLabor_News
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