The current rules for H-2A and H-2B visas create dangerous power imbalances between guest workers and employers. Because these workers must remain employed by their visa sponsor — risking loss of legal immigration status if they separate — those in abusive situations are often forced or coerced into staying silent.
Fortunately, the U.S. government is beginning to recognize this inequality. In October 2022, it launched the H-2B Worker Protection Taskforce, a major acknowledgement that these visa holders face numerous human and labor rights violations in the U.S., including labor trafficking — a concern that Polaris has persistently brought to light.
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Through operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Polaris has heard from hundreds of workers in diverse industries covered under the H-2B program, including construction, meatpacking, amusement parks, hospitality, landscaping, and forestry. Many have had their wages stolen or withheld, supposedly to pay back costs for travel to the U.S. or basic needs. This debt bondage, along with other force, fraud, and coercion, keep workers in exploitative situations. For example, 68% of H-2B trafficking victims reported threats of deportation or immigration consequences if they failed to comply with employers’ demands.
After a year of dedicated advocacy work with coalition partners, Polaris is encouraged by the progress reflected in the H-2B Worker Protection Taskforce’s recent report, which identified the following needed actions:
- Deferred action to support legal claims: The U.S. government should protect workers involved in labor disputes with their employers by guaranteeing deferred action and allowing workers to remain in the country during an investigation. This could reduce the fear of retaliation that discourages workers from pursuing their rights.
- Creation of a data hub: Having easy access to relevant data on H-2 workers is key in combating labor abuses and holding companies accountable for complying with the rule of law. As a first step toward leveraging existing data, the Department of State will publish anonymized data on a quarterly basis to inform outreach and advocacy efforts.
- Improved recruitment monitoring system: To reduce vulnerability, especially to debt bondage, a better monitoring system would enable the Department of Labor to inspect every aspect of the recruitment process and ensure that common but illegal recruitment fees are not being charged.
- Outreach and education on worker rights: Under proposed measures, labor and human rights organizations would be able to visit workers in employer-provided housing, which is currently prohibited. The Department of Labor also created a helpful tool for migrant workers, which provides important information about rights and other resources to workers in English and Spanish.
These provisions will help mitigate H-2B workers’ vulnerabilities and empower them to secure their rights and pursue safe, justly compensated work in the U.S. Although much remains to be done in fighting labor exploitation and trafficking, the Taskforce’s efforts are a significant stride in the right direction.
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