Alissa Escarce, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM)


Government Accountability Office Issues Report “H-2A and H-2B Visa Programs: Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers,” CDM Urges Immediate Reform

On March 6, 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released its report “H-2A and H-2B Visa Programs: Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers.” The report responds to a 2013 Congressional mandate to review the recruitment of foreign workers for jobs in the United States.

Drawing on interviews and data from agency officials, employers, H-2 workers and NGOs, including CDM, the report highlights common abuses in the international labor recruitment process. GAO describes anecdotes from employers and federal agencies regarding recruiters who, in exchange for connecting workers with a job, take a portion of workers’ paychecks or charge them high fees. GAO also cites workers who paid $1,250 USD fees to their recruiters, which they paid by taking out loans with 10-15% interest rates. These fees and debts, combined with recruiters’ false promises about working conditions and a lack of accurate and accessible information about H-2 jobs, can lead to a range of abuses including debt bondage, according to GAO. To alleviate these problems, GAO recommends that the agencies make H-2 job information publicly available as soon as possible.

The report also points to the lack of federal protections for H-2B workers, who are not required to receive job contracts and are generally obligated to pay for their own transportation and housing in the United States. Most H-2B workers cannot access federally funded legal services, and their employers are rarely investigated. “The GAO report is an important step to address the problems in the H-2 visa programs,” stated Rachel Micah-Jones, Executive Director of CDM. “From CDM’s 9 years of experience on the ground with migrant workers, the report’s findings regarding the H-2B program are just the tip of the iceberg, and do not fully describe the serious economic coercion and abuses faced by migrants who are on visas that tie them to a single employer. The recommendations made by the GAO, while good, do not go far enough to protect migrant workers’ rights.”

CDM urges the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to jointly issue H-2B regulations modeled after a 2012 DOL rule, which offered H-2B workers improved worker protections while balancing industry interests. The 2012 rule was suspended in 2014 by a Florida district court. Last week the same court suspended the program’s remaining regulations—which offered fewer worker protections—and left employers claiming that DOL’s enforcement power is curtailed. As a result of these two cases the H-2B program is currently suspended, and will remain so until the agencies issue joint regulations.

“GAO is highlighting missing regulatory protections precisely at the moment that government agencies must act together to provide regulations with improved worker protections in the H-2B program. The GAO report makes plain the need for DOL and DHS to issue the 2012 DOL rule, which would provide workers with a modicum of protection,” said Micah-Jones.

CDM also urges DOL, DHS, and the State Department to work together to implement GAO recommendations and to address additional problems described by the report.