3 Shocking Examples of Guest-Worker Abuses

Braceros, mass deportations and alleged predatory recruitment.

ByABC News
March 18, 2013, 5:09 PM

March 20, 2013— -- Republicans and business interests want to make sure that any immigration reform bill includes a way for lesser-skilled workers to enter the country legally.

Crafting such a system, however, is tricky. Guest-worker programs have a history of labor abuses, and any new program will need to offer guarantees to combat those worries among organized labor and Democratic lawmakers.

See Also: 4 Reasons Guest Worker Programs Have Failed

So far, business and labor interests, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, have come to a basic agreement on a new visa for lesser-skilled workers. Both sides have stressed that the proposed visa wouldn't amount to another guest-worker program, since it would offer an eventual route to permanent legal status.

To see why guest worker programs have a bad reputation among labor groups, here are three examples of standout abuses:

1. The Bracero Program

To combat a shortage of workers during World War II, Congress approved a deal with the Mexican government to bring temporary agricultural workers to the U.S. The Bracero program started small but eventually grew to bring more than 400,000 workers per year to the U.S.

On paper, the program had strong labor protections, but, often, those safeguards weren't carried out in practice, according to Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at The College of William & Mary who studies guest-worker programs.

For example, employers were required to provide housing for the temporary workers, but the living quarters were often substandard.

"You had men sleeping in stables and chicken coops," Hahamovitch said.

Investigations by labor organizers found that workers were victims of wage abuses, as well. Amid loud opposition from labor groups, the program was ended in 1964.

2. Deported Strikers in Okeelanta, Florida

During the same post-war period that saw the start of the Bracero program, the sugar-cane industry in Florida began turning to temporary workers for harvests. Most of those workers came from Jamaica through what is known as the H-2B guest worker program.

Each season, it was common for workers initiate short labor stoppages to bargain for better pay. But employers held the cards: workers could be summarily returned to their home country and easily replaced, according to Hahamovitch.

One incident stands out, however. In November 1986, sugar cane workers in Okeelanta, Florida went on strike, and a local sheriff intervened.

Hahamovitch recounts the incident in the book "No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor." After a day of striking, the camp was raided by police, who cleared the barracks with their guns drawn. During the raid, two Jamaican workers were bitten by dogs, but police claimed that those workers had been resisting arrest and attempting to incite a riot.

The involvement of local law enforcement wasn't too unusual, but should have raised questions, Hahamovitch said.

"It's not supposed to be illegal to strike," she said, "so why is the sheriff being called in to break a strike, and using police dogs and helicopters?"

The sheriff's office told a different story, saying that the police came because strikers had locked a farm superintendent in his office and tried to burn down a cane field. But Hahamovitch cites police documents that indicate authorities were responding to the strike.

After the raid, roughly 350 workers were rounded up and brought to the airport by local police before they could even pack their belongings or change their clothes.