Immigrant workers are locked up, docked wages, extorted for bribes, and threatened by the police at their boss’s behest—sounds like a sweatshop in Southeast Asia or, at worst, the abuse of illegal immigrants in America who can’t turn to the authorities, right? Wrong. An infuriating, must-read report in BuzzFeed lays out in detail the plight of workers here in the U.S. on H-2 visas:
The number of H-2 visas issued has grown by more than 50% over the past five years. Unlike the better-known H-1B visa program, which brings skilled workers such as computer programmers into America’s high-tech industries, the H-2 program is for the economy’s bottom rung, designed to make it easier for employers to fill temporary, unskilled positions.[..]
A BuzzFeed News investigation — based on government databases and investigative files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, thousands of court documents, as well as more than 80 interviews with workers and employers — shows that the program condemns thousands of employees each year to exploitation and mistreatment, often in plain view of government officials charged with protecting them. All across America, 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.
Now, we’d here sound a note of caution: Most H-2 employers do not commit abuses like these, and most H-2 workers do not suffer them. And certainly bad things happen to people in low-wage jobs in America too. But there’s a difference: the rot is in the heart of the H-2 program:
The way H-2 visas shackle workers to a single employer leaves them almost no leverage to demand better treatment. The rules also make it easy to banish a worker to her home country at the boss’s whim.
And that leads to less lurid, but almost certainly more widespread, abuses, such as artificial lowering of wages, safety problems, squalid accommodations, and requests for kickbacks.
The undercurrent of the BuzzFeed article is in part that regulators aren’t doing their job. Well, maybe. We’re more than willing to entertain the notion that local cops are often more responsive, in ways that can become inappropriate, to the owner of the local crawfish factory than its immigrant employees (to take the article’s most lurid example). But there are already OSHA inspectors, ICE agents, etc., aplenty—and the abuses still happened. Sometimes, “there ought to be a law” or “there ought to be more enforcement” just doesn’t cut it.
We’d suggest instead that this program, often defended as business-friendly, suffers from a deficit of market capitalism. This is something that Milton Friedman, for one, foresaw long ago. From Chapter 8, “Who Protects the Worker?”, of Free to Choose:
The most reliable and effective protection for most workers is provided by the existence of many employers. As we have seen, a person who has only one possible employer has little or no protection. The employers who protect a worker are those who would like to hire him. Their demand for his services makes it in the self-interest of his own employer to pay him the full value of his work. If his own employer doesn’t, someone else may be ready to do so. Competition for his services— that is the worker’s real protection. […]
A worker is protected from his employer by the existence of other employers for whom he can go to work.
That is not the case for the H-2 worker. Consequently, increased exploitation is something any well-read market conservative should expect—and oppose. The H-2 (and its high-tech cousin the H-1B) offer all of the bad effects of immmigration—competition from cheaper foreign labor (for other Americans), exploitation (for the workers)—and none of the benefits.
The temporary nature of the H-2 program robs America of the chance to recruit on a permanent basis hard-working new citizens who, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, have lacked opportunity but not character or ability, to fill these jobs. (Would that the 28th President had been so broadminded toward our African American citizens…) Conversely, the program artificially depresses wages and opportunities for unskilled Americans, particularly inner-city or rural residents, who could take these jobs if the visas weren’t offered. And they rob our markets of the essential dynamism and entrepreneurship inherent when employees can switch companies or start their own (whether they make Apple apps or push an apple cart). The H-2 program benefits only the crony, rent-seeking employer. It’s indenturement by another name.
These visas are un-American, and despite a thousand disagreements on immigration policy right now, reforming them is something that right and left should be able to agree on.