PHILADELPHIA - Alberto Rivero, a Mexican national, entered the U.S. temporary worker program in 2005. For the past three years, he has had to pay all his visa, transportation and lodging expenses himself, although the program's regulations indicate that these are his employer's responsibility.
"This last year, I paid something like $800. At the first company I worked for, I didn't pay anything," he told IPS, in a telephone interview. Rivero, 33, is paying off his debts by working as a gardener in the town of West Chester, in the northeastern Pennsylvania.
Mexicans who receive H2A and H2B visas, created by the United States government to regulate temporary employment, are suffering abuse at the hands of their employers. Such practices might even devolve into the enslavement or human trafficking, without any protection being offered to the victims by the Mexican government, activists and specialists in the field charge.
"The abuses originate with the recruiters. They demand fees for getting the workers' contracts, and for visas and transportation. The problem is that there is no public oversight of the contracts and the contractors," Alejandra Ancheita explained to IPS; she is a lawyer for the [Mexico City-based] NGO, Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC – the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project), which counsels and advises groups of immigrant workers.
In 1943, the United States established H2 visas for foreign workers, and in the 1980s, it further instituted the categories H2A for agricultural workers and H2B for workers in other areas, like gardening and construction, and for service personnel to clean hotels.
Recruiters have established offices in Mexico to attract workers from communities all over the country, and they create connections with similar businesses in the United States. There are no inspections of these offices by the Secretaría del Trabajo y Previsión Social (Ministry of Labor and Social Security), due to the lack of a bilateral agreement on the subject.
These visas are a straightjacket for labor, since workers in this program can work only for the contractor and only at the assigned employer. The regulations stipulate that the boss must cover all the immigrant's expenses.
"If the boss does not comply with his legal obligations, the worker doesn't have the option of going to another place and is afraid to complain because they can be fired and be left without papers," IPS was told by Victoria Gavito, director of legal affairs for the non-governmental organization Centro de Derechos del Migrante (CDM – Center for Migrant Rights), which is located in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas.
Every year, close to 130,000 Mexicans enroll in the temporary worker program, according to data from both the U.S. government and NGOs that work in this area. The workers come primarily from the central Mexican states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Jalisco and Zacatecas, and head out mainly for U.S. territories in Louisiana (near the border), and the eastern states of North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, and Washington.
Organizations like ProDESC and CDM advise and counsel groups of affected workers so that they can organize and litigate their cases within Mexico. For this, they have published the Manual for Bilateral Justice (Manual de justicia bilateral), a legal framework for the defense of immigrant workers in both countries.
The Mexican Federal Labor Law stipulates that the hiring companies must cover the worker's costs for paperwork and legal forms, and must register the contracts with the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, the entity responsible for overseeing and enforcing labor rights. But this obligation is not fulfilled, according to activists.
In response to this non-compliance, the Mexican government argues that this concerns an agreement between private parties, therefore it cannot intervene.
"The government does not get involved, nor does it wish to know how these persons are contracted," was the comment made to IPS by Enrique González, whose Master's thesis in International Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico dealt with the H2 program.
For his field work, González investigated and interviewed 867 households in the town of El Naranjo, in the central state of San Luis Potosí, and found 24 temporary worker cases. Seventy percent of the poll's respondents said that they had paid for their visas, and almost 92 percent had paid for their transportation. Only 45 percent had received reimbursement for these expenses.
ProDESC is advising two groups of workers who suffered abuses in Louisiana. One case involves 35 migrant laborers from San Luis Potosí, who worked in strawberry fields in 2008, where their passports were confiscated by their employers, and were forced to work in extremely bad conditions and subjected to physical and verbal taunts and abuse. The other case concerns 17 Mexicans who were exposed to similar treatment.
The goal is for them to be able to sue recruiters and bosses in the Mexican courts while the U.S. justice system follows its own course.
"It is supposed to be the government's responsibility to regulate these relationships. But litigation is a tool that will not resolve the matter at the deepest level. The process of contracting and the provision of visas and transportation must be made transparent," declared Ancheita, who graduated from Metropolitan Autonomous University.
This year, the CDM, which is building a database on contractors, has received three charges from workers installing amusement parks in the U.S. states of North Carolina, Georgia and California, reporting violations of workers' rights.
"There ought to be more oversight. This is a very big opportunity to change conditions in Mexico," stated Gavita, a lawyer who graduated from St. Mary's University, a private institution in Texas.
Since last March, the H2 program has changed the way it operates. It now provides a written statement of the terms of the contract, the identity of the foreign recruiters, and spells out possible abuses and indicates penalties for anomalies in the contracting process.
Before the current version, the largest temporary worker program was the Bracero Program, from 1942 to 1964, during which thousands of Mexicans crossed the northern border to do agricultural jobs.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among Canada, the United States and Mexico, in place since 1994, never mentions temporary labor, not even in its parallel labor agreement.
But Mexico does have a mechanism in place with Canada, the so-called Temporary Agricultural Worker Program, in effect since 1974, and under which some 15,000 Mexicans travel annually to Canada to carry out such jobs, according to government sources.