4 Reasons Guest Worker Programs Have Failed in the Past

A new visa proposal could remedy some past problems.

February 25, 2013, 3:07 PM

Feb. 25, 2013— -- One of the most important components of any immigration reform bill will be how the immigration system will be changed to deal with future waves of immigrant workers in manual labor sectors.

Last week, leaders from business and labor came to an agreement in principle that will likely serve as a guideline for any legislation in Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are calling for the creation of a new visa for what they're calling "lesser-skilled workers."

See Also: Business and Labor Make Immigration Deal

The visa would not be another guest worker program, according to Ana Avendaño, a top immigration policy aide at AFL-CIO. That distinction is important, mainly because guest worker programs, as we know them, have a bad track record.

Here are some of the ways that guest worker programs have failed in the past, and how the newly proposed visa might do better:

1. Lack of Worker Protections

One of the biggest guest worker programs in the history of the U.S., the Bracero program, admitted more than 4 million farm workers from Mexico from 1942 to 1964. On paper, labor protections looked relatively good, with workers receiving government-supervised contracts, housing and a salary that would amount to at least the minimum wage spelled out in the contract. The Bracero program, as it was originally conceived, was "the most comprehensive farm labor contract in the history of American agriculture," according to Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at William & Mary who has written extensively about guest workers.

But in practice, immigrant workers faced several types of abuses, Hahamovitch says. Growers regularly disregarded promises made in contracts, she writes in her book No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor. Mexican news outlets also reported instances of physical abuse and discrimination.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Bracero program -- a problem that extends to other guest worker programs in the U.S. -- is that workers were tied to a single employer or recruiter, and could face deportation if they complained.

That's something that could be corrected with the new visa being proposed by business and labor. First of all, the new visa would allow workers to eventually move beyond a temporary immigration status, so the goal would not be to cycle workers out of the country within a certain number of months. The visa would also give workers the ability to switch employers, but "in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs," according to a joint statement by the Chamber and the AFL-CIO. So the new visa would be a way to fill manual labor jobs, but at the same time give immigrant workers the ability to stand up to unscrupulous employers -- hypothetically.

2. Too Cumbersome for Employers

On Tuesday, a hearing in the House will look into the need for a temporary guest worker program for the agricultural industry. And a group of Democratic and Republican legislators working on immigration reform in the Senate have already said that agriculture should get a special deal.

With that in mind, you might be surprised to learn that growers already have a temporary guest worker program. But few growers actually use it.

The complaint is that the program, which offers workers what is called an H-2A visa, is too cumbersome. "The H-2A program is used by growers out of necessity only," Kristi Boswell, the director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation told ABC/Univision earlier this month. "It's a very burdensome process to even apply to the program."

Farmers want a guest worker program with fewer stipulations, including the ability to hire and fire at will.

In other manual labor sectors, there are limited options for recruiting immigrant workers. The new visa proposed by business and labor would create an avenue to bring those workers to the U.S. legally.

3. Artificially Cheap Workers Can Stifle Industry Development

One of the main reasons employers in manual labor sectors say they need immigrant workers is because they can't find U.S.-born workers to do the jobs. In many cases, like agriculture, that's evident.

But whether those sectors should receive a special labor pool -- one that comes with artificially low wages and limited worker protections -- is another question.

Take the case of sugar cane workers in South Florida. Cutting sugar cane is grueling work, and since the 1940s, the industry has looked to foreign-labor to take up the task. But temporary workers, who came largely from Jamaica and the Bahamas on H-2A visas, had little bargaining power over their wages and work conditions, and could be easily returned to their home countries if they didn't meet quotas. In 1986, 350 workers who refused to go into the fields one day were simply sent back to Jamaica -- without a chance to even collect their belongings. The workers could be replaced quickly.

In Louisiana, where U.S.-born blacks worked in the cane fields, the industry had been mechanized since the 1960s. But Florida was behind the trend, UC Davis Professor Philip Martin wrote in his book Importing Poverty: Immigration and the Changing Face of Rural America. Businesses said they couldn't mechanize because the machinery would get bogged down in the moist soil of the Everglades.

But when guest workers threatened industry leaders with a class-action lawsuit in the 1990s that could have raised operating costs by 40 percent, the industry rapidly moved to a mechanized model.

"One lesson from the sugar experience is skepticism about grower claims that there are no alternatives to imported farm workers," Martin wrote in a 2010 report. "The speedy mechanization of the harvest when faced with sharply higher wages belies the assertions that were no alternatives to hand harvesters."

The sugar industry serves as an example of how industry innovation can potentially lag behind if businesses are provided an artificially inexpensive pool of labor.

4. Lack of Flexibility

One of the complaints about current guest worker programs -- and the immigration system as a whole -- is that it lacks flexibility. The needs of the marketplace might change, but the number of available visas for workers doesn't shrink or expand along with those changes. As we pointed out earlier, in some cases, there are no visas at all.

One part of the business and labor proposal is the creation of a federal bureau to make determinations about the workforce needs in the U.S. This body would compile data that Congress could use when considering how to adjust the number of available visas.

The body would need to be politically independent and data-driven, according to the business and labor proposal. Of course, even a flexible system would be subject to criticism from both those who want more visas, to feed business interests, and those who want fewer, to protect worker rights.

The takeaway: a flexible visa system is necessary, but striking a balance between spurring business growth and protecting American workers will be difficult.