The Guestworker Economy
July 11, 2012 10:13 am
The conditions at former Walmart supplier C.J.’s Seafood — the subject of recent controversy leading Walmart to sever ties with the company — have helped to shed light on the plight of guestworkers. Last Sunday, the New York Times published an editorial condemning labor practices affecting H2B workers, or guestworkers. As stated in the New York Times editorial, “It is time to banish the idea that forced labor and sweatshop exploitation are problems of bygone eras or distant countries. These conditions exist within America’s borders.”
NPR’s On Point hosted an enlightening roundtable on H2B workers and C.J.’s’ abuses Tuesday. The program focuses on legislation affecting H2B workers as well as the broader economic trends which necessitate cheap labor. Host Tom Ashbrook states, “C.J.’s is owned by Michael Leblanc… he is also the head of the Crawfish Processors Alliance, an industry group that has worked against tougher labor oversight.” Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance, states that his organization was first tipped off to the unethical labor practices by a 911 call emanating from the plant — a call that was later brushed off as an accident by the worker in question. According to Soni, Leblanc allegedly threatened workers, saying, “I know good people and bad people in Mexico,” — the country guestworkers would be forced to return to if fired from the plant.
Reform to the H2B worker program that would improve conditions for guest workers was set to take effect in April, yet a group of Senators, including Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, shamefully stepped in to vote against funding for the bill. Simultaneously, a group of business owners (Leblanc being one of them) sued the Department of Labor over the proposed changes. (The National Guestworker Alliance has more info and resources on the proposed legislation.) Retailers with the power to drive supply chains are pressing their suppliers to offer goods at lower prices; the low cost of goods in stores is echoing down the chain in the form of abuse of the most vulnerable workers in the country.
Mr. Soni also addressed the larger precarity trend felt by workers across the economy on Tuesday’s program: ”There’s a bigger story here and that’s the story of the transformation of work in the United States. In this economy, all work is becoming like guestwork. Jobs that used to be good, permanent, well-paying, dignified jobs are turning into temporary, minimum wage, often under minimum wage, exploitative labor.”
With the increased publicity being given to the H2B issue, Congress will hopefully approve increased oversight on labor practices affecting guestworkers — until then, the existence of forced labor will remain a blight on our economy and, and on our country.
Image from here