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News from EPI Guestworkers Have No Economic Advantages over Unauthorized Workers

Guestworkers are just as vulnerable to exploitation and low wages as unauthorized immigrant workers, according to a new EPI report. In Authorized Workers, Limited Returns: The Labor Market Outcomes of Temporary Mexican WorkersLauren Apgar, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, compares the employment situation of Mexican guestworkers with that of legal permanent residents (LPRs) and unauthorized workers. The temporary legal immigration status provided to guestworkers does not help them escape the wage penalty associated with unauthorized work. Because H-2A and H-2B visas are tied to the employer, employers can exploit guestworkers’ fear of deportation to pay them lower wages.

“The H-2A and H-2B programs give foreign workers a lawful status and make it seem like they have a distinct advantage over unauthorized workers, but this is not the case,” said Apgar. “Temporary foreign workers have incredibly limited labor market opportunities because a single employer essentially owns their visa. These employers can use threats of deportation to discourage workers from reporting abuses.”

Mexican guestworkers have hourly wages equivalent to those of unauthorized workers and hold jobs at the lowest rung of the ladder with little room for mobility. Temporary foreign workers earn about 11 percent less than LPRs and their wages did not significantly differ from those of unauthorized workers, who earn roughly 13 percent less than LPRs. Additionally, guestworkers have less opportunity for advancement than unauthorized workers and subsequently hold positions below even those of unauthorized workers. While unauthorized workers may switch jobs among employers willing to hire them as a way of moving up in their field of work, temporary workers’ visas are controlled by their employers, preventing the possibility of similar advancement.

“When we leave immigrants vulnerable to threats of deportation, they are exploited and paid lower wages. Not only are temporary foreign workers not earning as much as legal permanent residents, they’re also earning as little as unauthorized immigrants who have few rights in the workplace,” said Daniel Costa, EPI Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research. “The legal frameworks that regulate temporary worker programs are inadequate and have been unable to protect guestworkers from the exploitative practices faced by their unauthorized counterparts.”

Apgar recommends policy changes that provide guestworkers with new protections from retaliation. For example, visas could be issued directly to the migrant workers instead of being under the sole control of their employers, giving workers opportunities for better wages and enabling workers to use skills gained on the job to advance up the ladder. This change would also enable workers to report labor abuses and workplace violations without fear of losing their visa. By improving guestworker program rules and offering unauthorized immigrant workers legalization and a path to citizenship, we can raise the wages of both immigrant and American workers.

This paper is part of EPI’s Raising America’s Pay project, a multiyear research and public education initiative to make wage growth an urgent national policy priority. Raising America’s Pay seeks to explain wage and benefit patterns—and the role of labor market policies and practices in suppressing pay—and identify policies that will generate broad-based wage growth.