The United States temporary work visa system is badly broken. From 2015-2017, Polaris identified some 800 victims of human trafficking who held temporary visas at the time of their abuse. This report highlights the destructive practice of labor trafficking on temporary work visas, how the system is flawed, and the steps we need to take to fix it.
Photo by ACF OPA
About temporary guestworker programs
Every year, the United States issues hundreds of thousands of temporary work visas to people from around the globe. The majority will fill low-wage jobs in industries like agriculture when businesses owners certify they can’t hire enough workers domestically. Others will support themselves while they study or travel. Some will work as household help for diplomats, some as engineers in technology firms. As legal workers, they will theoretically enjoy protections around recruitment and working conditions. But the system is so poorly designed and badly broken that it is difficult to find out how many people are actually working on such visas, let alone how they are being treated. Many will become victims of human trafficking.
Why guest workers are vulnerable to trafficking
- Tied visas: Most temporary visas are tied to a single business. That means when workers leave the job, they are automatically eligible for deportation. Traffickers know this and use it as a form of coercion. Workers who are deported are ineligible to return. For many low-wage workers, this is the worst threat of all as they depend on short-term work in the United States to support their families.
- Recruiter fees: While recruiters are barred in theory from charging fees, this is rarely enforced. Many workers wind up thousands of dollars in debt to traffickers as a result. They have no choice but to stay and pay off the debt.
Scope of trafficking on temporary work visas
A study by Polaris based on data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline found 814 individual victims of human trafficking between 2015 and 2017 who were here and working on temporary visas, although this figure likely represents only a fraction of the number of actual victims.
- Seventy percent of the victims identified were male.
- While China received the highest number of guest worker visas, Mexico was the most significant source country for victims, followed by Philippines and Guatemala.
- The greatest number of victims worked in agriculture, followed by domestic work.
Fixing a broken system
The most important fixes to the broken guestworker visa systems would be to actually enforce bans on recruitment fees and to end the issuance of tied visas, making all visas portable, so workers would have real freedom to leave situations that were unfair, dangerous or exploitative. Additionally, important changes include but are not limited to:
- The Department of Labor should create a stronger process for holding bad actors accountable and making information available to workers.
- Congress should enact the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act, which creates a uniform system for reporting data about temporary visas and requires that the information be public.
“Mary” came here from East Africa to care for the three children of a diplomat in hopes her earnings would allow her to send her own children to school. When she arrived, the employer seized her visa and passport and told her that she was not allowed to speak to anyone outside the household. Should anyone ask, she was told to identify herself as a cousin of the family. For $200 a month, Mary was required to work seven days, 16 hours a day. Eventually, Mary told a neighbor she met at the park about the working conditions and learned her rights were being abused. She approached her employer and was met with verbal abuse. Six months after arriving in the United States, she managed to get the paperwork she needed to get free and go home.
A "cultural exchange" in name only
He came on a legal J-1 visa – the kind that are supposed to be for “cultural exchange.” Instead he worked in a restaurant, 60 – 70 hours a week, without breaks for meals or anything else. The temperature in the kitchen hovered around 100 degrees and it flooded whenever it rained. When he complained his employer said he would get deported and never be allowed to come back. Just in case that threat wasn’t enough the employer also promised to hide drugs in worker’s car and then call the police on him. After six months, he finally quit, deciding to sell everything he owned to pay for a way to get home.
Lied to and abused
Nearly 40 men from Mexico with legal H-2A visas were packed into the back of truck and driven for hours – without a single rest stop – to a farm somewhere in the rural southeast. Some got sick along the way. Upon arrival, all were told they would not get fed until they handed over their passports. It got worse. The $9 an hour in their contracts turned out to be $3 – per crate filled. The housing they were promised turned out to be roach-infested trailers with a dozen men packed into each and no running water. The men had spent hard-earned money for the opportunity to work but realized they weren’t safe. Several snuck away on foot and eventually found help.
Coercion at a carnival
For 16 hours a day, seven days a week, without a break for food or water, “Jose” and seven co-workers prepared and served food at a concession stand that traveled with roving carnivals. They slept - all of them - on the floor of a trailer. He and his co-workers were paid sporadically, in cash, far less than they were promised when the came to the job from Mexico on H-2B visas. When they asked questions about getting paid, the boss got angry. In fact, she got angry, abusive and even violent fairly often. She threw something at Jose, slapped him and repeatedly threatened to send him back to Mexico.