The Economist magazine seems to think that George W Bush can save his place in history by reaching a compromise with the Democrats by pushing through a kinder gentler "guest worker" (sounds nice doesn't it?) program. The elements of such a program would include tighter border security, better tracking through a massive tracking and surveillance system with special ID cards, more tightly linking ("matching") workers with specific employers, preferential treatment for US born workers and green card holders, encouragement for the guests to leave the US, anti-exploitation measures, and of course increased compassion.1
Today the New York Times ran "Low Pay and Broken Promises Greet Guest Workers in U.S." on the front page. Here was described the plight of immigrant farm workers brought into the US to the tune of 120,000 per year to do menial labor in deplorable conditions. They have little or no job security, no income security and absolutely no labor rights (like the 40 hour work week) nor the right to organize in order to protect themselves. It should be noted that native farm workers suffer from the same injustices in many U.S. states, including the progressive New York State.
The article noted that guest workers are abused far more than other workers due to their captive status. Ironically many of these people pay exorbitant fees for the "privilege" to take the jobs where they are abused, not knowing ahead of time what lies in store for them. Labor camps have been sued for fraud, breach of contract, minimum wage violations and illegal human trafficking.2 These types of exploiters used to be called "job sharks" - seems to me that it's high time we revive that term for everyday use (it IS common in India and elsewhere).
So the question is, will an new guest worker program, driven by the demands of the very businesses which are perpetrating these abuses, really help solve anything? For a historical perspective it is useful to examine the "Bracero Program" established in the 1950s, the legacy of which still governs policy today. The Monthly Review ran an article by Richard D. Vogel on the topic last month as follows:
The history of the Bracero Program, an indentured servitude program which allowed for the temporary migration of Mexican agricultural workers to the United States from 1942 to 1964, is important because of its impact on the lives of millions of Mexican workers. In addition, it was the first bilateral agreement regulating migrant labor between the two nations. The Bracero Agreement offers the historical and legal precedent for the program currently being developed for the mass exploitation of Mexican and Central American workers in the United States.Vogel goes on to describe the key elements of the new proposed guest worker program as follows:
When an economic recession triggered a political backlash against Mexican migrants. Operation Wetback, as it was officially designated, was a paramilitary campaign conducted by the U.S. Border Patrol against Mexican communities across the nation that resulted in the deportation or flight of well over a million migrant workers and their families.
Ultimately, over 4.6 million Mexican citizens entered the United States under the Bracero Agreement, providing an abundant supply of cheap workers for U.S. agriculture as long as it was needed. Though the program provided desperately needed jobs to Mexican workers, the bracero experience was characterized by poverty wages, substandard working conditions, social discrimination, and lack of even the most basic social services for braceros and their families.
The innocuous term, “guest worker,” obscures the true nature of transient servitude. The term “guest” suggests a person to whom hospitality is extended, but this labor program will offer no kindness or generosity to workers caught in the trap. The program will be conducted primarily by private corporations (perhaps exclusively by Halliburton/KBR or one of its subsidiaries) that are only interested in the bottom line of profits for their stockholders and huge salaries and bonuses for their managers and executives, and it will be enforced by the unprecedented power of the U.S. government and guaranteed by the WTO through GATS.The final ironic twist is that Mexico's puppet president Felipe Calderon today announced that Mexico will be initiating a guest worker program of it's own to control immigration from Central America.4 The program is much more humane than those being proposed within the U.S. but basically it is an implementation of the same template and an extension of neo-liberal economic policies.
The work offered under the program will be transient in a double sense—the work visas will be temporary and employment will be itinerant because of visa portability. Limited to a maximum of six years of participation and with the prospect of legalization conditional, the program offers workers an uncertain future at best.
A condition of servitude is all but guaranteed during the term of employment because GATS has officially disavowed any responsibility for enforcing international labor law advocated by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which itself has no enforcement provisions. Ironically, workers under the pending U.S. guest worker programs will have less protection than the workers who labored under the Bracero Agreement because of the power of GATS to supercede all national (including labor) law thus nullifying worker rights guaranteed in the Mexican Constitution.
The exploitation of workers under the U.S. guest worker program will, in practice, be virtually unrestricted and participation will be expensive. In addition to the visa and work permit fees required by the U.S. government, workers will have to absorb the commission fees charged by labor contractors and transportation costs (both prohibited under the Bracero Program), and additional charges for medical exams, inoculations, and miscellaneous expenses. In practice, the costs born by migrant laborers under a U.S. guest worker program will greatly reduce the money available for remittances to families in Latin America, one of the primary motivating factors for participating in the program.3
A truly effective global paradigm for migrant labor must be put into effect to replace the neo-liberal WTO policies being implemented in the U.S. and Mexico. Universal labor rights for all, regardless of citizenship, is an essential first step. Demilitarization of the borders and decriminalization of work are second and third. Workers must be free to work, migrate and organize just as businesses are free to transcend borders. Incentives to exploit workers must be eliminated and offenders must be prosecuted and punished.
A socialist approach to creating a migrant labor system governed by compassion and justice with the aim to create a better life for all involved on a global scale is the only approach that will have a long lasting and positive effect.