Critics: Bush's Guest Worker Program Unsafe for Immigrant Workers

As Congress debates the pros and cons of a bipartisan bill that will toughen laws regarding employment of illegal immigrants and tighten the border, and President George W. Bush pushes to add a guest worker provision to the legislation, many union and advocacy groups are complaining a guest worker policy will contribute to further exploitation and poorer working conditions for illegal immigrants.

While unions such as the AFL-CIO have applauded Sen. Arlen Spector and the Senate Judiciary Committee for crafting a bill that would provide a way for temporary workers as well as illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens, they reject Bush's insistence on having the guest worker program be included in the bill.

Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO, told OccupationalHazrds.com: "Many workers are scared to report abuses as they feel threatened by their employers they may lose their job."

That problem would be exacerbated if the guest worker program was adopted, she said.

According to Seminario, guest worker programs are not a good idea because they cast workers into a second-class citizen status and put their fate into their employers' hands, creating an opportunity to exploit them. It also encourages employers to turn full-time jobs into temporary ones at reduced wages and diminished working conditions, she added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workers from Mexico accounted for more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the 2,440 fatally injured, foreign-born workers between 1995 and 2000. Lower percentages of fatally injured workers came from Cuba (146, or 6 percent), El Salvador (131, or 5 percent), Guatemala (90, or 4 percent) and the Dominican Republic (87, or 4 percent).

A report released by Human Rights Watch in 2005, "Blood, Sweat and Fear," pinpoints human rights abuses in U.S. slaughterhouses, an industry in which Hispanic immigrant workers make up an increasing percentage of the workers. Injuries and deaths, in the form of loss of limbs, suffocation on poisonous gases, beheadings and infections are common, according to the report. Immigrant workers are most at risk as language difficulties prevent them from knowing how to stay safe and many risk being deported if they seek to organize and improve conditions, the report asserts.

Cesar Moreno, deputy executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), told OccupationalHazards.com he opposes any guest worker program that doesn't guarantee workers their basic rights.

"There's little protection that is offered to undocumented workers and they don't receive overtime pay and health insurance despite most of them working 7 days a week," he said. "Therefore, they are forced to put up with [poor working conditions]. It's not like they can go to OSHA and complain."

Many undocumented workers are joining forces and forming unions in an attempt to secure rights as a group, according to Seminario. She said that while this offers some protection in that there is a collective-bargaining agreement, workers should be offered individual rights as well.

"We propose that there be legislation that makes the worker be independent from the employer," she said.

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