Feds slow to probe guest worker abuse

The timing couldn’t have been more awkward.

On Monday, the United States engaged in its annual exercise of global public shaming known as the Trafficking in Persons Report. The U.S. chastised Thailand for not doing enough to stop the smuggling of people to become slaves in the sex and agriculture industries, and praised Kenya for doing more to comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The United States, of course, was perfect, according to the U.S. State Department.

And yet our country has a dirty little secret. Three days before the agency released its report, BuzzFeed News published the results of its investigation into the nation’s H-2 visa program. The article revealed what the Labor Department already knows: That the program, which allows companies to bring in low-skilled workers from other countries to fill temporary jobs, is rife with abuse, even as there is talk in Washington of expanding the program.

Yes, Buzzfeed. The online publication has earned a reputation for trivial pursuits, so much so that a recent Pew Research Center survey ranked the public’s trust in Buzzfeed dead last among various media. But journalism evolves. In this instance, veteran reporters Jessica Garrison and Ken Bensinger, and news data editor Jeremy Singer-Vine produced a well-researched 8,300-word piece entitled “The New American Slavery.” Their findings ought to be part of the discussion when or if Congress ever gets around to taking a serious look at immigration laws.

“All across America,” they wrote, “H-2 guest workers complain that they have been cheated out of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned. Some have even died on the job. Yet employers rarely face any significant consequences.”

Those conclusions were based on an examination of government databases and files, court documents and interviews with workers and employers.

Workers here on H-2 visas number about 100,000 every year. Many are poor and desperate to send money home to support families. They come from Mexico and the Philippines, and they end up doing menial jobs, such as cutting grass, picking fruit and processing poultry. Many end up in Northern California as forestry workers.

Some workers toil long hours for a few dollars a week, barely enough to feed themselves and certainly not enough to send home.

Even though employers agree to pay their guest workers at least the federal minimum wage, in many cases they don’t. Some workers, according to Buzzfeed, toil long hours for a few dollars a week, barely enough to feed themselves and certainly not enough to send home.

To make sure workers can’t leave, even though the H-2 program handcuffs them to the company that sponsored their visa, employers have been known to confiscate passports and restrict their movements off the clock. If that’s not modern-day slavery, we don’t know what is.

Of course, not every company that participates in the H-2 visa program is a bad actor. Many provide foreign workers with the means to make money legally in the United States.

But the Labor Department, which is supposed to protect the rights of guest workers, is slow to investigate. Meanwhile, many companies found guilty of shorting workers’ pay have been cleared to issue more H-2 visas, at the same time the program has grown by more than 50 percent during the past five years.

The H-2 program can be a tremendous tool for companies and guest workers, but there needs to more oversight to prevent the kind of abuse reported by Buzzfeed. The United States needs to walk the talk it gives every other country.