Monday, March 11, 2013

Human Rights Commission Hearing on Guest Worker Abuse

From Steven Barnes, Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School:

March 12 hearing at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to focus on abuses suffered by legal immigrants under temporary guest worker program

As Congress debates proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, including provisions for an expanded temporary worker program, tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. under the current H-2 temporary worker program are suffering widespread abuses, including human trafficking, as part of the program, according to experts and advocates.

Those abuses and the systemic problems associated with the H-2 guest worker visa program, including the lack of U.S. enforcement efforts, will be highlighted during a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on March 12 in Washington, D.C.  The Commission is a monitoring body within the Organization of American States, of which the U.S. is a member. The hearing was requested by students from the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic on behalf of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), a transnational workers’ rights organization, along with the nongovernmental organization Fundar, the AFL-CIO, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Approximately 100,000 migrant workers from around the world occupy unskilled, low-wage jobs in the U.S., and American employers recruit these legal guest workers to fill positions in agriculture, forestry, construction and other such industries on a temporary basis through the H-2 program. While employers recruit workers under the H-2 program from more than 58 countries, Mexico supplies the vast majority of these workers every year.

According to CDM representatives, former guest workers, and the Transnational Legal Clinic students who will testify March 12, workers recruited under the H-2 program are often brought to the U.S. under false promises of employers and recruiters who misrepresent the terms of their employment and extract exorbitant recruitment fees with virtual impunity. These exploitative practices trap workers in a system of involuntary servitude or forced labor, recognized forms of human trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.  Indeed, the findings of a report by CDM released in January 2013 highlight the pervasive human rights violations committed against internationally recruited workers predominantly from the Americas, mostly from Mexico.

“In light of the transnational nature of the human rights abuses committed against H-2 workers, the United States and other OAS member states should coordinate a response that effectively regulates and enforces the H-2 guest worker program,” said Elizabeth Freed, a second-year Penn Law student involved in the Transnational Legal Clinic, who will testify to the Commission.  “OAS member states should work to protect the rights of migrant workers and recognize their integral role in the U.S. economy.”

Inadequate enforcement and oversight of existing legal protections guaranteed to H-2 workers by the United States and other OAS member states, and a lack of visa portability, result in many migrant workers suffering serious human rights violations from the moment of recruitment in their countries of origin, throughout the labor migration process, and continuing into their workplace upon arrival in the U.S.

Moreover, the U.S. does not provide lawfully present H-2B workers equal access to the country’s judicial system; advocacy organizations funded by the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency which funds and monitors free civil legal aid in the United States, are prohibited from representing H-2B workers. This restriction compounds the barriers to justice often posed by physical isolation, language, and fear. Therefore, a worker with an H-2 visa who seeks to hold employers or recruiters liable for violations of their human rights, or who is retaliated against for asserting his or her rights, has few options for obtaining legal redress.

The students involved in the Transnational Legal Clinic, on behalf of CDM and their partner organizations, will recommend the U.S. Congress enact legislation that holds employers accountable for illegal recruitment practices and ensures greater transparency in the international recruitment process at large, while increasing cooperative efforts with migrant advocacy organizations and other OAS Member States to effectively protect the rights of migrant workers under the American Declaration.

The hearing will take place from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on March 12 in the OAS’s Padilha Vidal Room, which is located at 1889 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. The hearing is on the record and open to media.


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