By Whitney Eulich / Christian Science Monitor
For decades, foreign workers have traveled to the US on guest worker visas to help pick fruit and vegetables, cut lawns, work in restaurants, and set up carnivals. Workers from Mexico make up the large majority of visa holders for these low-skill categories of guest laborers.
Migrant workers say they expected the visa process to protect them from exploitation. But the way the system is designed can make many workers vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Temporary workers are bound to one employer, and often arrive in the US in debt due to illegal recruitment fees or upfront transit costs.
Advocates say abuses that can add up to trafficking – lying about the nature of the work before arrival, forcing employees to work long hours without breaks, making threats about worker’s families, paying workers below the minimum wage, and physical or sexual assault – are exacerbated by the fact that guest workers are required to leave the United States at the end of each season.
Back home, they are far away from the US legal system or advocates that might help them push for justice against abusive or exploitive employers.
But over the past decade more lawyers, NGOs, government representatives and migrant advocates on both sides of the border have worked together to short circuit a guest-worker system that relies on laborers not knowing that they are entitled to legal recourse, or how to go about getting it.
They see this effort for cross-border justice, painstaking and time-consuming as it is, as vital to reducing labor trafficking and migrant worker exploitation in the US.