Civil rights group slams federal guestworker program

Civil rights group slams federal guestworker program

Posted on February 19, 2013 at 7:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 11:25 AM

Brendan McCarthy / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @bmccarthyWWL

NEW ORLEANS -- Amid a national debate on immigration reform, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report Tuesday taking aim at the federal guestworker program.

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The report, which you can read here, says the system is rife with abuses and that it encourages employers to exploit workers and violate civil rights.

"Our report documents that workers are routinely cheated out of wages, have their documents or identity documents seized, forced to live in squalid conditions, and denied benefits for injuries,” said Mary Bauer, SPLC legal director.

Records show that Louisiana is second in the nation when it comes to the number of temporary farmworkers and other types of laborers.

According to data compiled by the SPLC, the U.S. Department of Labor certified 7,342 guest workers for Louisiana last year on a H-2A visa, which is for agricultural work. The state lags behind only North Carolina.

Another 4,795 guest workers were certified on a H-2B visa, which is for other types of laborers. Here, Louisiana trails only Texas in the number of workers.

Employers across the nation brought a total of about 106,000 guestworkers into the country in 2011.

"The issue of guestworker programs is one that too often receives far too little attention,” Wade Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

The report comes as U.S. Congress weighs broad immigration policy reforms and possible changes to the guestworker system.

The SPLC believes the program should be eliminated altogether, or at least used as a model for immigration reform.

Jacob Horwitz, of the New Orleans based National Guestworker Alliance, said recently that major reform is needed. He called any expansion of the guestworker program a terrible move.

“Companies are choosing to shop for the cheapest and most exploitable worker and they now have, because of these guest worker programs, access to workers from around the world."

Many of the abuse claims noted in the SPLC report are echoed locally by dozens of Filipino men who have sued Grand Isle Shipyard, an oilfield contracting company in Galliano. They say they were lied to, pushed to work upwards of 400 hours a month for measly pay, and forced to do odd jobs like wash the CEO’s car.

And our recent Eyewitness Investigation, “Pipeline to the Platform," uncovered immigration paperwork based on lies, workers with multiple and fake social security numbers and much more.

An attorney for Grand Isle has called the human trafficking allegations "totally false."

But the U.S. government has in recent weeks issued human trafficking visas to more than a dozen of the Filipino workers, labeling them trafficking victims.