Treating Guest Workers Like Guests

For the past several weeks here in NC, the local NPR station has been covering the story of a group of Thai farm workers who are suing the recruitment company that brought them to the US. A few days ago, the story made the national NPR news. You can hear the whole story here, (HumanTrafficking.org has good coverage of it as well, with more details,) but the basic story is that these men paid very high recruitment fees to the placement agency. They had checked the agency out to make sure it was legitimate, and truly thought about whether the high fee was worth it. Many of them had to mortgage all their land, and their family’s land as well, to pay. And of course, they were asked to pay an additional, “small” fee before leaving for the US. But they did it, because the promise of guaranteed pay of at least $8 hour, full-time, for 3 years, was worth it. They calculated they could pay off the debt in a year, then save lots of money in the next two years to send home.

However, the reality was that the visas they were brought in on were for seasonal work, limited to one year, and the hours were nothing like full-time once the initial season they had been brought in for was over. The situation was now a nightmare version of what they had expected, as the HumanTrafficking article describes:

When they arrived in the United States in August 2005, the labor contractor confiscated the Thai men’s passports and return plane tickets, the lawsuit says. They got only two or three days of work a week on farms. And after about a week living in a motel in Benson, they were moved to a small storage building in Dunn, behind the home of Seo Homsombath, a native of Laos who is president of Million Express, the lawsuit says.

There, the 30 men slept on blankets spread on the floor and shared a single bathroom, Asanok said. Homsombath took them to work, and otherwise didn’t allow them to leave the property.

The NPR story says this:

Lori Elmer, at Legal Aid of North Carolina, is Son’s lawyer. She says the recruiters exploited the Thai workers’ poverty and indebtedness, telling U.S. growers that it was an advantage for them: “In other words, because of the extreme debt that these workers would come into the United States with, they would work hard and scared, and you could be assured they would never quit.”

These are very common tactics, even for foreign workers who are not as destitute. When I was in Taiwan, the teacher placement company was using similar lines with us new hires. We were all young women from the US, none of whom spoke any Chinese or had any support network in Taiwan. We were at the company’s mercy to provide us with accommodation and work. The accommodation turned out to be a dormitory-style room with bunk beds and no lock on the door, which our supervisor took advantage of to come in in the middle of the night whenever he felt like it “to discuss work plans for the next day,” and we were being paid at something like 1/3 the hourly rate the other teachers (foreigners who already lived in Taiwan) were being paid. We were not recompensed for our plane tickets, but were then told our lower pay rate was to cover the cost of those tickets. One young woman had been told to arrive so far ahead of our actual beginning work date that she had used up all of her savings to support herself during that time. Our supervisor collected personal information on his employees to use as emotional blackmail material. We were not allowed to leave the campus of the school where the dormitory was after 10pm, nor were we allowed to talk to any staff member above the level of our supervisor. We did not have legal work visas yet, and were told to hide in the basement if immigration officials came to the school, until our work visas came through. I am all too aware of how lucky I am that I could afford to simply get on a plane and leave. How much worse it is for farm workers is a horrifying prospect, and while I know my own situation was nothing in comparison, it makes their story resonate very strongly.

One of the things that caught my attention in the NPR story, though, was how this case has now started to have a national impact:

The U.S. Department of Labor is in charge of these labor programs, but a spokeswoman points out that there is “no provision in the law” to monitor overseas recruitment. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the powerful head of the House Committee on Education and Labor, says that’s the heart of the problem.

“I think the Department of Labor has to take responsibility for these workers,” Miller says. “We are inviting them; they’re called ‘guest workers.’ This isn’t how you treat guests.

The above emphasis is mine. One of the reasons I was so quickly disgusted with the situation I found myself in in Taiwan was because I had been a foreign teacher before, in Japan, where the concept of “guest worker” was taken seriously, (at least in the case of teachers.) The JET Programme was set up as an exchange and teaching program. This is a key distinction, and one that more guest worker programs should take to heart.

If the US government is going to continue to pursue guest worker programs as possible answers to the need for seasonal workers and a way for foreign workers to enter the country for those jobs legally, they need to have a better understanding of what a “guest” worker is. The idea that there is no recruitment oversight is shocking, from my perspective. While I’m sure the number of JET-recruited teachers in Japan is much smaller than the number of guest workers in the agricultural industry in the US, I still think the US government could learn a little something from that of Japan in the way the Japanese Dept. of Education (MEXT) has instituted a bureaucratic system to handle yearly recruitment in English-speaking countries around the world. They have taken control of, not to mention responsibility for, the recruitment process. This in turn requires that the applicants hold up their ends of the bargain, as far as work performance goes, but there is a sense of reciprocity. JET has recruited these people; they will take care of their workers and their workers will do the best work they can.

In the US right now, though, there is no sense whatsoever that the US Department of Labor or Agriculture or whatever department this falls under will even acknowledge that they encouraged these workers to come to the US at all, let alone look after them by ensuring their basic human rights are respected, at the least. It is a one-way relationship; no reciprocity here. What kind of legislation would it take to convince farmers that it is a privilege to have guest workers on their farms, just as it is a privilege for those workers to come to the US? How can we make both sides feel they must put their best foot forward, that they are involved in an act of cultural exchange, and they both need to strive to make a good impression? How can we combat the endemic American attitude that of course everyone wants to come to the US and we therefore have no reason at all to have to try to send them home happy?

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2 Responses to Treating Guest Workers Like Guests

  1. TheGnat says:

    I think your final paragraph echoes exactly what a major factor is in the problem. I think part of it goes to the inherent class-ism in the U.S., and the dearth of Americans willing to do anything less than white collar work. Which is due, at least in part, to how employers treat workers who aren’t college educated, and that one cannot earn a living wage without a college degree or formal vocational education. Regular Americans just don’t work in those jobs, making it far easier to exploit guest workers.

  2. TheGnat says:

    I wanted to correct what I said about Japan having a formal guest worker program. They do. There are some problems with it, but the government is working to fix those problems. I just happened to read about it in the latest Yomiuri Shinbun. You can also see the number of guest workers is a lot lower in Japan (not including business workers, which is a whole other ball game).

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