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Guest Worker is not the Answer for Exploited and Displaced Workers

It would be a terrible thing if, in the name of immigration reform, a “guest worker” program were to be imple-mented that would include few protections for imported workers who would be transient, working no more than six years, with no path to residency, with workers tied to one employer, without legal representation, and without permission for families of workers to accompany them.

When a major guest worker program was proposed several years ago, many were unaware that a guest worker program already exists in the small H-2 programs in the U.S., which have few protections for workers or are too young to remember the abuses of the oldBracero program.

Various studies document the abuse of workers under the H-2 programs, e.g., “Migrant Forest Workers Caught in Web of Exploitation” Sacramento Bee , www.sitnews.us). The H-2 programs had not been funded for this year at this writing.

There is currently a critical shortage of agricultural workers because of border enforcement. A proposal just made in February 2008 by the administration to “streamline” the H-2 guest worker program for farmers, whose crops have been rotting in the field, was criticized by Dolores Huerta, when she spoke recently in Houston and visited Casa Juan Diego. Huerta worked for many years with Cesar Chavez with the United Farm Workers and today continues the work of advocating for farm workers. “This is terrible!” she said. “There is no reason for them to dilute the provisions of the H2A program to import more foreign workers.” We’re trying to get legalization for the undocumen-ted workers we have here now.”

Displacement of Workers

If a large program with no future were implemented, where would workers come from to participate as guest workers? From the displaced workers in countries to the south.

NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) is a dramatic example of how displacement of workers occurs. The rules of NAFTA strictly limit the Mexican government’s ability to subsidize its farmers. Mexican farmers cannot compete with the large subsidies the U.S. gives its farmers (for the most part large agribusinesses). When Mexican farmers entered the international market with NAFTA, many lost everything.

What happened to 2 million Mexican farmers whose jobs were destroyed or undermined by NAFTA? A flood of displaced people from NAFTA tried to come to the United States to find work.

NAFTA also created displacement of people within Mexico, from the south to the north of the country, where maquiladoras (outsourced factories for multinational companies or U.S. companies) multiplied to take advantage of a cheap labor force without government or labor protections. This has been a bonanza for corporations and their stock-holders, but not, of course, for the workers. At the same time, NAFTA rules allowed some of the rich to become even richer.

Many more farmers will be displaced with the implemen-tation of the final phases of NAFTA which take place this year. The New York Times reported on 2/1/2008 that “Tens of thousands of farmers clogged the streets” of Mexico City to protest the end of tariffs on corn from the United States, “warning that the elimination of trade barriers could drive them out of business and lead more Mexicans to migrate north.”

Not Only Farmers

Jim Hightower, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, points out that not only farmers, but businesses across Mexico were displaced by NAFTA, along with government assistance for the poor:

“In the last 15 years, Mexico’s longstanding system of sustaining its huge population of poor citizens (including small self-sufficient farms, jobs in state-owned industries and subsidies for such essentials as tortillas) has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks, corporations, government officials and ‘free market’ ideologues. In the name of ‘modernizing’ the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and GE -in cahoots with the plutocrats and oligarchs of Mexico -have laid waste to that country’s grass-roots economy, destroying the already-meager livelihoods of millions.

” Since NAFTA passed, there has been a flood of business bankruptcies and takeovers in Mexico as predatory U.S. chains have moved in. U.S. corpora-tions now control 40 percent of the country’s formal jobs, with Wal-Mart reigning as the No. 1 employer.”

Small business owners from Mexico have been a part of the immigrants coming to Casa Juan Diego since NAFTA passed.

Larger Than NAFTA

Policy makers do not mention the displacement of workers caused by international economic policies, rather presenting trade agreements as beneficial to all. David Bacon writes in the New Labor Forum of an international army of cheap labor of displaced people, (purposely created) and key to the global economy, but not mentioned by policy makers. “The whole process that pushes people north is outside the parameters of political debate. Displacement is an unmen-tionable word in the Washington discourse .”

Who Displaced U. S. Workers?

People worry that the undocumented are taking there jobs. However,

“Even if there were no illegal workers in our country–none–the fragility would remain, for poor Mexican laborers are not the ones who:

– Downsized and offshored our middle-class jobs.

– Perverted our bankruptcy laws to let corporations abrogate their union contracts.

– Stopped enforcement of America’s wage and hour laws.

– Perverted the National Labor Relations Board into an anti-worker tool for corporations.

– Illegally reclassified millions of employees as “independent contractors,”
leaving them with no benefits or labor rights.

– Subverted the right of workers to organize.

– Turned a blind eye to the re-emergence in America of sweatshops and child labor in everything from the clothing industry to Wal-Mart.

– Made good healthcare a luxury item.

– Let rich campaign donors take over both political parties.

– Passed by hook and crook a continuing series of global-trade scams to enrich the few and knock down the many.

Powerless immigrants didn’t do these things to us. The richest, most-powerful, best-connected corporate interests did them.”(www.jimhightower.com)

Globalization’s Inequities

This displacement of workers had already been taking place over several decades before the “free trade” agreements. When Pope John Paul II condemned neoliberalism in Ecclesia in America , many Catholic Americans not only wondered why, but wondered what neoliberalism might be. The same was true of Benedict XVI’s insistence that structural adjustment not be included in debt forgiveness programs.

What the Popes condemned was the interventions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in poorer countries requiring them to sell off services to the people to private investors, dismantle government assistance pro-grams, and change what the people grew and what they made to conform with Bank requirements. Not infrequently, the new owners increased profits by attacking unions and laying off thousands of workers.

Negotiations have been underway in the World Trade Organization to establish global regulations for guest worker programs that would supersede all previous agreements and national laws—not in favor of workers.

Benedict XVI

The root of the search for cheap labor is the desire to be able to purchase more and more things, inflamed by the barrage of advertising from large companies, whose existence depends on selling ever more things and showing “growth” for their stockholders.

Pope Benedict XVI, observing the global economy, said in his homily for Epiphany this year, that “The only way to bring about just and sustainable development in the world is to live in moderation and fix the vast inequities in the distribution of wealth.” In one succinct, insightful sentence the Holy Father described the situation: “One cannot say that globaliza-tion is synonymous with world order; it’s anything but that.”

“In his homily, Pope Benedict said people need hope in something greater than themselves, which would also lead them to “prefer the common good of all people as opposed to abundance for the few and misery for the many.” ( Our Sunday Visitor 1/20/2008).

A good way to begin to implement these words on a practical level regarding workers and immigration was spelled out by Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO:

“We must revise the current immigration law in a way that guarantees full labor rights for future foreign workers and reflects real labor market conditions by restructuring the current permanent employment visa category. That is, future foreign workers should be welcomed as permanent residents with full rights at the onset–not as disposable ‘guests.’ This is the only way to guarantee that foreign workers enjoy the same rights and protections as all other U.S. workers, including the freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life (www.forbes.com)

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, March-April 2008.