Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Against the "Perfect Petri Dish of Capitalism"
June 19, 2007

American Flag“We ought to make it easier for people who want to employ somebody … to be able to hire people who want to work.” So said President Bush on July 26, 2001, answering a question about his recently proposed “guest worker” program.  In the summer of 2001, immigration was a front-burner issue, with multiple rounds of talks scheduled, even as late as September 10.

September 11, 2001 sidelined immigration reform, for awhile, though the push for a US guest worker program has persisted.  President Bush elevated his guest worker pitch to the level of his State of the Union speech in 2004, and now, in the summer of 2007, he’s making trips to Capitol Hill to line up support from Congressional Republicans for a reinvigorated guest worker appeal.

With Congress divided on the program – and not along traditional party lines – the situation invites the question of who really wants a guest worker program.  For whom is the guest worker program designed?  As noted above, Bush already told us, back in the summer of 2001.  Guest workers make life easy “for people who want to employ somebody.”  The guest worker program is a gift to big business.

But what about those who would seek employment under such a program?

The history of a guest worker program already operating in the United States doesn’t bode well for future workers.  For years, the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands in the western Pacific has operated a guest worker program, importing cheap labor from nearby Asian countries to run a booming garment industry on the islands. 

These workers, along with imported maids, waitresses, farm workers and laborers came seeking the American Dream and instead they found a nightmare of abuse and slave-like conditions. Their employers control their lives and liberty. They have been exempt from most US immigration and labor laws (including the federal minimum wage) and their rights are almost non-existent.

This system of abuse has flourished for more than twenty years.

Just last February, a young worker from the Philippines testified before a Senate committee about her horrific experience following the promise of a good job in the Marianas, only to be forced into prostitution by her employers and held as a near-slave. Her story is unfortunately all too common (some of the same Senators heard different guest workers give similar testimony in hearings a decade ago).

The culture of abuse on the Marianas has been profitable for the employers of guest workers, creating a system famously described by former House leader Tom DeLay as "a perfect petri dish of capitalism."  But it has been disastrous for the countless young women and men trafficked into the Marianas and trapped in a cycle of poverty, debt, and exploitation.

Though individual representatives have championed as the plight of the Marianas guest workers since the mid-1990s, Congress at large has only recently begun to act.  When Congress passed supplemental appropriations for the Iraq War in May, the bill – signed by the president – included a rider that will finally apply the federal minimum wage to the Marianas, gradually raising wages there by about 50 cents a year until 2015.

This progress against Marianas sweatshops is a good start, and it is not enough.  Workers in the Marianas need more than just higher wages.  They need rights and justice. They need all the rights that other Americans enjoy under US labor laws every day.  They need a federal immigration status that offers a clear pathway to US citizenship. They have earned this.

Last Friday, the Senate began discussing a bill to reform labor and immigration laws affecting the Marianas guest workers.  It is unclear if this legislation will end the abuse. Even as Congress and the Bush administration struggle to resolve the failed system on the Marianas, they are expanding the problem with a push to create a similar guest worker program on the mainland.

The fact is that guest worker programs anywhere create an underclass of workers whose entire lives rise and fall at the mercy of their employers.  Such programs benefit corporations by providing cheap labor, but offer next to nothing in return for the workers – not even a shot at citizenship or permanent residency, under the terms of the most recent program proposed for the mainland US.

Congress needs to seize this summer’s opportunity to pass comprehensive reform of the labor and immigration laws on the Marianas, and should study the negative effects of the guest worker program there, the better to resist importing the culture of Tom DeLay’s petri dish for workers here on the mainland. 

--Dennis Greenia and Andrew Korfhage

 

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Please contact Todd Larsen by email
or by phone at 202-872-5307.


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