Archiel Buagas thought she was doing everything right. The young Filipina nurse secured a special work visa to come to the United States and arranged a job at a New York nursing home with the help of a recruiting agency. Things started to feel wrong when they refused to give her a copy of her contract. She and the other nurses in her group soon found themselves working frantically to care for 30 to 60 patients per shift, without regular breaks, and she was soon driven to exhaustion by the indecent pay and relentless stress.
“I was so scared of going to work that before my shift,” she later testified to labor advocates. “I would be crying, I’d be [vomiting] because of anxiety and nervousness. I would have diarrhea…. [T]he only thing that made me sleep was the fact that I’m so tired …. I wanted to go home.”
Buagas learned the hard way that her path to American prosperity would be fraught with betrayal. It wasn’t because she didn’t have the right papers, it was because her papers offered her no protection against an industry that preys on the hopes of migrants seeking a better life abroad. As Congress debates immigration reform, most of the public focus has been on “legalizing” the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living “underground,” and on the expansion of labor-based visas to bring more immigrants into the workforce on a “legal” basis. But beyond the question of who gets a shot at that vaguely defined “path to citizenship,” labor advocates are pushing lawmakers to give meaningful protections and rights to workers who are disenfranchised by legal, social, and economic marginalization.
In many cases, many immigrant workers with visas (that is, those who are technically legally authorized to work in the United States) are at least as vulnerable as their undocumented counterparts to abuses such as wage theft, labor trafficking and employer intimidation. In arecent report on labor recruitment abuses, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group (ILRWG) explained that under the current poorly regulated visa structure:
employers are able to exploit an essentially captive workforce, and workers are deterred from asserting their rights under U.S. law. Workers who complain routinely are blacklisted, threatened or physically intimidated by recruiters. Additionally, many internationally recruited workers face language barriers, racism, xenophobia, sexism and the pressures of poverty in both the United States and their home countries.
The immigration reform bill now advancing in the Senate might help close some of the regulatory gaps. One section would bar recruitment fees imposed by foreign labor contractors, including the predatory charges imposed for job placement, legal processing and transportation. These fees have often been used to impose a modern form of indentured servitude.
In one particularly egregious case, teachers brought to the United States from the Philippines using employment-based visas, were charged $16,000 to secure jobs and then forced into a contract that skimmed 10 percent of their wages for the next two years. Read the rest of this entry →