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Immigration, yes. Indentured serfdom, no




Michael Lind

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The outlines of a bipartisan plan for immigration reform have been announced by a group of senators. While most of its provisions are reasonable — a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants, increased skilled immigration and increased law enforcement — one provision stinks to high heaven and should be rejected by Americans of left, right and center. That provision is a massive, special-interest-driven expansion of indentured servitude in the United States, in the form of a new “guest-worker program.” (President Obama, while hailing the plan in general on Tuesday, has not weighed in on the specifics of the guest-worker program.)

Indentured servitude or contract labor, like slavery, is a form of unfree labor. Unfortunately, the U.S., having abolished slavery, still has pockets of indentured servant labor. Whether relatively well-paid, like many highly educated H-1B workers, or poorly paid, like many H-2A agricultural workers, indentured servants are, in effect, indentured serfs. Because their presence in the U.S. is dependent on their employment by a particular employer, they cannot quit and are motivated to appease their employer, no matter how brutally they are exploited. If they protest maltreatment, they can be fired and forced to return to their home countries.

Many indentured servants also are compelled to pay exorbitant amounts of their salaries to contractors who act as intermediaries between them and their sponsor employers, like the notorious “body shops” that exploit many H-1b workers. Having fleeced and otherwise cheated the guest workers, these body shops often threaten to sue their victims when they become eligible for green cards and quit, on the basis of fine print in documents that the guest workers were earlier forced to sign.

Most Americans, not knowing the technicalities of immigration law, can be bamboozled by corporate lobbyists and propagandists who seek to blur the distinction between guest workers and legal permanent residents with “green cards.” But green card holders — some of them former indentured servants who have earned green cards, after years of exploitation — have economic rights that guest workers do not, the rights that make up the core of the notion of “free labor” in the U.S. and other societies. While legal permanent residents do not have the right to vote, they have the right to quit their jobs without being deported. The psychological difference is profound — a foreign national working in the U.S. with a green card does not have to cringe and grovel before an employer, as an indentured guest worker is compelled to do, out of fear.

The draft bipartisan proposal reads: “Our proposal will provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs.” In theory, employers of guest workers are already supposed to prove that no American citizens or legal permanent immigrants are available to perform a job. In practice, this is a joke. Employers in industries that use guest workers routinely turn to body shops for foreign indentured servants, with only token gestures of advertising the jobs.

These Democratic and Republican senators, echoing the well-paid lobbyists for indentured serfdom, few if any of whom are in danger of being deported if they displease their bosses, promise that abuses can be prevented, by including stronger standards in new indentured serf programs. But if the federal government, corrupted by pressure from powerful business lobbies, does not enforce today’s laws, why should we expect pro-guest-worker laws to be enforced in the future — particularly if an increase is guest workers is successfully extorted from the federal government by lobbyists and donors representing agribusiness and Silicon Valley?

In a 2007 report titled “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States,” the Southern Poverty Law Center described the existing H-2 guest worker program, which would presumably be a model for any expanded agricultural guest worker program included in a bipartisan immigration bill:

Federal law and U.S. Department of Labor regulations provide some basic protections to H-2 guestworkers — but they exist mainly on paper. Government enforcement of their rights is almost non-existent. Private attorneys typically won’t take up their cause.

Bound to a single employer and without access to legal resources, guestworkers are:

• routinely cheated out of wages;

• forced to mortgage their futures to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs;

• held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents;

• forced to live in squalid conditions; and,

• denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel recently put it this way: “This guestworker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”

In 2010, Mother Jones published an exposé of the corrupt H-2A agricultural guest worker program, entled “Bound for America”:

Several recent court cases document how easily guest-worker status devolves into forced labor. In one 2009 case, US v. Sou, three Hawaii growers were indicted for bringing in 44 Thai workers, pocketing a portion of their recruitment fees, then “maintaining their labor at the farm through threats of serious economic harm,” according to the Justice Department. In another case, Asanok v. Million Express Manpower, Thai and Indonesian workers alleged that they had been promised well-paying, steady farmwork in North Carolina, only to find themselves housed in a Katrina-damaged New Orleans hotel, demolishing the building by day and sleeping in what remained at night, going so hungry they sometimes trapped pigeons for dinner. The list could go on, with several cases filed each year for as long as the US has deployed guest-worker schemes.

Instead of expanding indentured servitude in America, we should be putting it on the path to permanent extinction, like slavery, segregated labor and child labor. There are two compelling arguments for abolishing indentured serfdom in the U.S.: one economic, one political.

The economic argument is that indentured serfdom, by allowing agribusiness to pay poverty wages to workers, has bad macroeconomic effects and bad microeconomic effects. With respect to macroeconomics, guest-worker serfdom is the opposite of a “Fordist” economy in which workers are paid well enough to purchase the products they made — as Henry Ford’s auto workers could afford Ford automobiles. The low-wage foreign national picking lettuce destined for affluent hipster stores like Fresh Fields and Whole Foods won’t be able to afford it, at a subsistence wage.

This macroeconomic argument might be dismissed, because of the slight contribution to aggregate demand by the minority of all farm workers, including guest workers. The microeconomic argument against low-wage labor of any kind is more persuasive: It reduces the incentive for American agribusiness to increase its productivity, by investing in labor-saving technology.

Guest-worker programs are in-kind government subsidies to agribusiness. By lowering the cost of a particular input to the production process — in this case, low-wage, non-union foreign labor — the government is subsidizing a particular industry.

A low-wage guest-worker program is not only an example of an industrial policy that “picks winners,” but the stupidest and most destructive kind of industrial policy imaginable: one that favors backward, primitive, labor-intensive productive techniques, over advanced, capital-intensive mechanization and automation. Other countries manage to grow affordable lettuce, tomatoes and other produce without importing serfs to do so. The U.S. can do so as well.

The idea that we Americans will starve, unless our government provides agribusiness with an imported foreign underclass to harvest our food, is pure special interest propaganda, echoed by the uncritical stenographers of the mass media who pass as “reporters” nowadays. The Washington Post story on the proposed reform deserves a Pulitzer for gullibility: “The framework identifies two groups as deserving of special consideration for a separate and potentially speedier pathway to full citizenship: young people who were brought to the country illegally as minors and agricultural workers whose labor, often at subsistence wages, has long been critical to the nation’s food supply. [emphasis added].”

By providing in-kind labor subsidies to particular favored economic sectors, U.S. guest-worker programs intervene in the market on behalf of employers and at the expense of workers. Adam Smith would have agreed with this objection. In “The Wealth of Nations,” he argued that slavery retarded economic growth by reducing the incentives for innovation. And he wrote: “The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen.” Smith would not be surprised that so many American employers pretend they cannot find American citizens or free legal permanent residents to do jobs and demand the right to import unfree contract labor from other countries.

The political argument ought to be decisive. In a democratic republic, free citizen-workers should not be compelled to compete against unfree workers with limited rights — slaves, segregated workers, illegal aliens or contract laborers/guest workers. To put this another way, employers should not be able to engage in a divide-and-rule strategy of pitting different classes of workers, with different levels of rights, against one another in a single U.S. labor market.

Most of the jobs being created in the U.S. today are low-wage jobs with minimal educational requirements in healthcare, recreation and retail. If employer lobbyists succeed in creating a permanent caste of indentured serfs in agribusiness, the lobbies for the healthcare, fast food and hotel lobbies are sure to follow, whining that they cannot find American citizens, or legal permanent resident aliens, to do the work. Free workers in America will be forced to compete with unfree foreign contract laborers, in industry after industry, for the worst jobs in the country.

We can debate what the total amount of legal immigration should be, as well as how it is allotted among categories, including family unification and skills and national quotas. And we can also debate whether, and how, to provide a path to citizenship for many of the millions of illegal immigrants who reside in the U.S. But all Americans who do not profit from exploited labor should agree on one principle, regardless of other partisan differences: All legal immigrants, and all amnestied illegal immigrants, should have exactly the same workplace rights as American citizen-workers — including the right to quit and take another job in the U.S. A one-tier labor market is in the interest of citizen-workers themselves. There should be no place in the American labor market for a primitive, labor-intensive sub-economy — a modern plantation zone — with a caste of unfree workers.

One of the proudest achievements of the Civil Rights Revolution was the success of civil rights activists and unions in pressuring Congress to abolish the Bracero Program. This exploitative guest-worker program was shut down in 1964, after years of criticism by Latino civil rights groups in the U.S. as well as by the Mexican government. For progressives to cave in to extortion by the sleazy agribusiness lobby on the question of guest-workers, in order to obtain a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, would be an appalling surrender — like agreeing to let businesses revive child labor, as the price of passing reforms to promote childcare and child nutrition.

Employers and investors who insist that they cannot operate in the U.S. if they are forced to employ free citizen-workers or free legal permanent resident immigrants with the right to quit and unionize are the 21st-century equivalent of the unpatriotic and illiberal Southern planter class that preferred slavery and later segregation to free labor. Nineteenth-century abolitionists called the selfish planters the Slave Power. Twenty-first century Americans should call the selfish industries that demand indentured servants instead of free workers what they are: the Serf Power.

Immigration reform should provide a path to citizenship, not a road to serfdom. If Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez were alive, they would be protesting against guest-worker programs, even if they favored other elements of immigration reform. It would be a tragedy as well as an irony if the first African-American president, in the name of immigration reform, presided over the greatest expansion of unfree labor in the U.S. since the abolition of the Bracero program during the civil rights era.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.


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Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers and General farm workers

Content types

Policy analysis

Geographical focuses

United States and México

Spheres of activity

Law and Political science