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Leveling the Playing Field

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Hundreds of thousands of workers enter the United States each year on temporary visas through federal guestworker programs. They work in critical industries -- from landscaping to construction to education -- often in deeply exploitative conditions that rise to the level of forced labor and involuntary servitude.

The most recent case of alleged forced labor came to light only days ago, when a brave group of guestworkers in Louisiana went on strike to expose forced labor by a Walmart supplier called C.J.'s Seafood. C.J.'s had allegedly subjected workers to shifts of up to 24 hours with no overtime pay, locked them in the plant to prevent them from taking breaks, and threatened violence against them and their families. An investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium said conditions at the Walmart supplier "rival any sweatshop in China or Bangladesh."

"I've worked as a guestworker for eight years -- it was always bad, but I needed to support my family," said Ana Rosa Diaz, one of the guestworkers who went on strike. "We want to work, but we want our dignity. We want to be treated like human beings."

Ana is doing more than defending her own dignity at work. She is showing us what work could look like for all workers in the United States one day. Guestworkers provide the clearest and harshest examples of a fundamental shift in the nature of work in the United States. Employers are relentlessly turning what were once permanent, stable, living-wage jobs into precarious, poorly paid temporary jobs. They're trying to define more and more industries as seasonal and more and more employment as "temporary." And to make this shift, employers use guestworkers as the ultimate tool: an exploitable workforce that can be used to lower the floor for all workers.

In many ways, this dynamic has been clearest in the H-2B guestworker program, which the Walmart supplier used to hire Ana and her fellow guestworkers. But a comprehensive look at employers' abuse of the H-2B program -- and the reforms that would stop them -- has been hard to come by.

Today the NGA released a new report that fills that gap. It's called Leveling the Playing Field: Reforming the H-2B Program to Protect Guestworkers and U.S. Workers, and it's authored by the Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson School of Law's Center for Immigrants' Rights.

The report highlights cases of exploitation from Texas to Tennessee, and calls for four key reforms that would end employer abuse and protect both guestworkers and U.S. workers:
• Guaranteeing guestworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation;
• Prohibiting employers from using guestworkers as cheap, exploitable alternatives to U.S. workers;
• Eliminating debt servitude and other elements of human trafficking in the program; and
• Subjecting employers to meaningful government enforcement and community oversight.

The Obama administration is already trying to institute these reforms through new H-2B program rules, but it's been blocked by an all-out effort from industry groups and corporate lobbyists -- first in federal court, then through a U.S. Senate vote to defund the Department of Labor's enforcement of the new rules.

But workers are fighting back in incredibly inspiring ways. Ana and her fellow workers went on strike from the Walmart supplier, filed complaints with the Department of Labor, and sparked three federal investigations. When Walmart's own investigation failed to "substantiate the claims," the workers launched a petition demanding that Walmart meet with them directly. More than 130,000 people signed, and the workers traveled to New York City to personally deliver it to Walmart board members.

Now the workers are in Washington, D.C., where they'll present copies of Leveling the Playing Field to Congress and tell their stories in their own words. Anyone who wants to support the dignity of workers -- whether guestworkers or not -- should be listening.