“Slavery is still going on in America”: Blumenthal calls to extend whistleblower protections for H-2B guest workers

By Siya Hegde

Many guest workers experience harsh working conditions that most Americans might expect to find in developing countries, but would be surprised to see in the US — and these workers lack the right to blow the whistle when they suffer illegal abuse or mistreatment.

Imagine what it might feel like to be held captive by someone who has presumed the responsibility as your legal sponsor in the United States. First your passport is confiscated, erasing your personal identity, and then you are compelled to work fourteen hours a day nonstop.

After hours of hard labor, physical and verbal threats, you return to a crammed confined living space with inadequate access to food and water that you share with two dozen others.

And you are denied the right to do or say anything in your defense.

Sounds crazy right? Unfortunately, this is the experience of many workers who are here in the United States working as a temporary guest worker on an H-2B visa.

Tens of thousands of low-skilled, temporary H-2B migrant workers travel to the United States every year. These workers arrive expecting that they will enjoy its economic opportunities and climb the social ladder on the way to attaining their permanent residency. Some have even gone so far as to say that these acts of guest worker exploitation and abuse are violations of the thirteenth amendment.

However, the Senate could address the needs of H-2B workers as a part of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S.744.

In its current form, S.744 does not provide whistleblower protections of H-2B workers. If whistleblower protections were provided for these workers, they would have a means to end their subjection to workplace abuse.

Thankfully, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has recognized that the abusive practices of H-2B employers should no longer go unchecked. Blumenthal has introduced amendment 1429 to S.744 and has called for bipartisan support to extend whistleblower protections to H-2B workers, a simple right that the majority of the private sector enjoys.

All workers, regardless of their immigration status, should be treated as equals in the workplace. No longer should we stand by and watch a large segment of the population be exploited on the job. After all, H-2B workers are our guests; no guests should be treated the way that they have been.

Blumenthal’s push to reform whistleblower protections for H-2B rights would certainly be a step in the right direction. If these protections are granted, H-2B workers would no longer be subjected to the perils of industry, including dangerous working conditions. Furthermore, it would compel us to reevaluate our democratic ideals and the manner in which we execute them.

Siya Hegde is a worker health and safety intern for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Keep up with Public Citizen’s workplace health and safety work by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.