Laura Klein Abel
The Gift of Protection
Cross-posted from The Brennan Center for Justice Blog
01/15/08--Among the many provisions of the omnibus appropriations bill President Bush signed the day after Christmas is one that, for the first time ever, promises to bring one of the most vulnerable group of employees in the United States within the protection of the laws the rest of us take for granted. Since the mid-80's, a group of foreign workers legally brought into the U.S. to do jobs that citizens refuse to do has been categorically ineligible for assistance from all nonprofit lawyers receiving funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation. This has made it all but impossible for these workers -- who are in the country legally under the "H-2B" visa program -- to get legal help, because virtually no other lawyers will represent them. Language barriers, the remote locations in which the workers are kept, the small amounts of money at issue, and the expertise needed to represent these workers make the cases unattractive to attorneys in private practice.
For the most part, government agencies won't help these workers either. State labor departments tend to think of the workers' plight as a federal matter. The federal Department of Labor sends the workers to the immigration authorities, who send the workers back to the federal Department of Labor. Even the most bureaucracy savvy among us would throw up their hands at that point. That is exactly what the workers - who generally lack familiarity with the U.S. legal system and rarely have more than a basic understanding of English - do.
Without access to a lawyer or help from the government, the many protections written into our nation's labor laws are worthless for these workers. The problems are exacerbated by the workers' unique vulnerability. The terms of their visa tie them to working for a single employer while they are in the U.S., giving that employer enormous power over the workers' lives. The workers tend to lack family or any other support system in the U.S. Most take out loans to pay for their transportation to the U.S., and they rely on the work they have been promised here to pay the loans back.
If this sounds to you like a situation ripe for exploitation, you are right. It is not unusual for workers lured to this country by U.S. employers to find, when they get here, that the wages are far lower than promised, the working conditions are dangerous, and living conditions are disgusting. Many workers end up being paid less than the legally required minimum wage, suffering workplace injuries, and going home deeper in debt than when they came here.
The omnibus spending bill holds out the promise of change for H-2B workers employed in forestry in the U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who wrote the change into the law, was moved to act by a series in the Sacramento Bee describing shocking mistreatment of H-2B forestry workers. On the Senate floor, he called making the workers eligible for assistance from federally funded lawyers "the single most effective thing Congress could do to address the problem of exploitation of forestry workers."
Next, Congress should address the plight of H-2B non-forestry workers, all of whom remain ineligible for assistance from those lawyers. The pressure is mounting. The Mexican government -- prompted by a petition filed by the Brennan Center, the Northwest Justice Workers' Project, and a large coalition of workers and nonprofits in the U.S. and Mexico -- has asked the U.S. government to explain how H-2B workers can enforce their labor rights. A recent series in the Glenwood Springs, Colorado Post-Independent details the plight of 100 H-2B workers lured to the U.S. with promises of construction jobs, and then stranded over Christmas with no work and no wages. Congress should not let another Christmas pass without making these, and other H-2B's, eligible for the legal assistance they need to prevent such abuses from happening again.