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Week of 5.26.06

Interviews: Guest Workers

Hugo Martin Recinos Recinos, a guest worker from Guatemala, discusses his experiences coming to work and live in America.

This is an edited and translated transcript of an interview conducted on May 2, 2006.

Q: How did you find out that you could be a guest worker in the U.S.?

Hugo Martin Recinos Recinos A: I was told there were visas available to work for Express Forestry in Montana through a recruiter who was going to bring people over. I asked him how much it would cost, and he said it would be 12,000 quetzales ($1,580), which they told me included the plane ticket, a fee for the visa, and other expenses. But in the end it did not include the airfare from Guatemala.

Q: Where did you get the money?

A: My father put up the deed to the land where we have our home to get the money. We were in ruin, because there was no way to get ahead. To grow coffee or corn, you have to use fertilizer. But since there was no money for that, I thought I should come here. That's why we mortgaged our land, so I could come here.

Q: You ended up having to give collateral to recruiters working on behalf of this American company. Tell me, how did the deed end up in their hands?

A: Since they charged us 12,000 quetzales ($1,580) we had to leave the deed with them so once we got here, no one would run off. No one would leave the company. You would have to work there permanently, until the visa would be up, and then you could return to Guatemala. If you left the company, and broke the contract, then you'd lose the property.

Q: How did that make you feel?

A: I felt like we were slaves. You couldn't move anywhere else, just work with them. But I thought here in the U.S. we didn't have rights to be free, that we had to be like slaves working with them. I also thought about the title I left with the lawyer. To not lose it, I had to stay with the company.

Q: What was the work like?

A: When you're planting you have to do as they say. The company prepares a certain parcel each week or every other week that they have to turn over. If you don't do it, you are scolded. They tell you 'you can't work.' And if you say, 'if you don't want me here, I'll go elsewhere.' They tell you, 'you can't leave, until you meet your obligations, you can't leave.' That's what makes me think you're a slave. You have to do what they say, not what you want, but what they say, you have to do.

Q: What did the recruiter in Guatemala tell you about the type of work you would be doing?

A: In Guatemala, they told me I would be paid by the hour, but we didn't get a good explanation of what the work would be. They made us sign the papers in 2000 [the year he first came]. They filled them out themselves and there was no explanation. We signed the forms and handed them in. It wasn't until our first check that we saw how much we were being paid. It was by the job, not by the hour.

Q: How much were you paid?

A: About $25 per 1,000 seedlings planted. The most I'd make was about $350, $380 a week for six days of work. Taxes were taken out, payment for your tools, rent....You'd also have money taken out to pay for your ride between the work site and the hotel. There were weeks that we could only work five days, and we'd make $270, $250, after all the deductions.

Q: Did you ask them why they were taking this money out of your pay?

A: I tried asking. What they would say was, 'if you don't want to work anymore, you can leave, but without papers.' But I was thinking, if I leave this company, I lose my papers, and immigration can grab you anywhere. So I never tried again asking.

Q: But you understood that you were in this country legally. And yet you felt like you had no rights?

A: Yes. You have no idea, no experience in this country, no one has told you what your rights are, whether you're here legally or illegally, no one told us how to live here in the U.S. We lived from work to the hotel, and from the hotel to work. Sundays we'd rest in the hotel.

Q: Where did you live?

A: In a hotel with five or six people. We bought a little pot to cook, a little stove, that's where you cook. It cost $30 or $40 a week for the room. You have to keep the room real clean so you won't get scolded by the bosses. What you pay is out of your pocket, out of what you earn.

Don Mooers is an immigration lawyer based in Maryland who supports guest worker programs. He spoke to NOW about why he believes a guest worker program is beneficial for America and what he believes is the best way forward.

This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 22, 2006.

Q: Which industries, that you know of, are essentially dependent on guest workers?

Don Mooers A: Ski resorts. Coastal resorts. Cape Code. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The seafood processing industry. Crab. Salmon roe in Alaska. Crab on the Eastern Shore. Shrimp on the Gulf. Swimming pools across the northern half of the United States where they can't find enough life guards. Landscapers.

All of the minor league baseball and hockey players in this country are all seasonal workers under the guest worker program. It affects communities throughout this country.

Q: Why do you believe guest workers are good thing for America?

A: It really is one of the ways, one of the only ways we know of to deal with these specific industries that have only seasonal needs. And you cannot find, despite year after year, to locate available, U.S. workers who are willing to work in a seasonal job, often in remote locations.

Q: Do you think guest workers should be tied to one company or should they have the possibility to leave that company if they feel they're not being treated well?

A: It depends on what kind of guest worker program you're talking about. Congress is debating a guest worker program for full time guest workers coming in with an avenue to be able to work towards permanent residency. I think that's fantastic. Many of these folks are more American than we are, you know, in terms of family values, in terms of a work ethic, in terms of all those things that make America what it is.

But during the time that they're here and under contract, I think they made a deal and the employers made a deal. If they're getting paid the wages that they were promised, they're getting overtime, the conditions are what they're supposed to be, then I think it's important that both sides respect the deal.

Q: Do you believe that the guest worker program as it stands now opens the door for exploitation or abuse of these workers?

A: I think any time you have an employer in a stronger position and employees are unable to know potentially where they need to go if there are problems, that's the situation in some isolated places, sure. You have to have government oversight. You have to have some way of ensuring that the wage and labor laws, that the OSHA [Occupation, Safety and Health Administration] and everything else are being as fairly enforced for these foreign workers, as they would be for U.S. workers.

[Mistreatment is] also unfair to U.S. workers, If employers can bring in foreign workers and not pay them what they would pay American workers, put them in a situation where they're not being treated the same way as American workers, then why should the employer make a real attempt to find every available American worker, as they have to under the current guest worker program.

Q: What can be done to protect the guest workers who are coming into the United States?

A: Well, one is making sure that any employer who has abused workers or has violated the terms of the agreement can't work in the program following abuse. I think that will do a great deal to solve the issue. I think secondly there has to be sufficient oversight as there is, there should be, for all work places, for American workers as well as for foreign national workers who are here.

For longer term, in terms of the guest workers, having those workers be able to work in the same ways that U.S. workers can - to have portability to be able to work for other employers.