Occupational Health News Roundup

Thousands of foreign workers in the U.S. — workers here legally through a visa program that allows employers to import workers from abroad — are abused, imprisoned and exploited. And the government does little to stop it, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News. Reporters Jessica Garrison and Ken Besinger and data editor Jeremy Singer-Vine began their investigation with the story of Marisela Valdez and Isy Gonzalez, two H-2 visa workers who peeled crawfish at L.T. West Inc. in Louisiana, where they say their employer took away their passports, sexually harassed them, forced them to work for little wages, and threatened them with deportation for leaving the employer’s property.

According to the article, every year, more than 100,000 people from countries such as Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa travel to the U.S. on an H-2 visa to perform what is typically considered low-wage work. However, the BuzzFeed investigation found that with little oversight and few penalties for exploiting workers, the program ends up leaving vulnerable workers completely at the mercy of their employers. Garrison, Besinger and Singer-Vine write:

In interview after interview, current and former guest workers — often on the verge of tears — used the same word to describe their experiences: slavery.

“We live where we work, and we can’t leave,” said Olivia Guzman Garfias, who has been coming to Louisiana as a guest worker from her small town in Mexico since 1997. “We are tied to the company. Our visas are in the company’s name. If the pay and working conditions aren’t as we wish, who can we complain to? We are like modern-day slaves.”

In a statement, the Department of Labor, which is charged with protecting workers and vetting employers seeking visas, said that the H-2 programs “are part of a wider immigration system that is widely acknowledged to be broken, contributing to an uneven playing field where employers who exploit vulnerable workers undermine those who do the right thing.”

In its investigation of thousands of court documents and government records, BuzzFeed News found more than 800 workers over the last 10 years had told authorities that their passports were confiscated, they were held against their will or warned not to leave their employer-provided housing. In fact, reporters interviewed one former investigator at the U.S. Department of Labor who said a substantial number of companies that employ H-2 visa workers “maliciously” break labor protection laws. The article states:

In the case of the most egregious violations, the Department of Labor has the option of debarring a company — banning it for up to three years from bringing in guest workers. The department maintains a public list of companies under such censure; the current list has 76 names on it. Employers that do work for the federal government can also be debarred from future contracts.

That’s how it works in theory. This March, however, the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division failed to conclude more than half its investigations of H-2 employers within the two-year statute of limitations. And many companies that were repeatedly found to abuse workers were nevertheless granted more H-2 visas, lucrative federal contracts, and farm subsidies.

Read the full story at BuzzFeed News.

In other news:

Slate: Alison Griswold writes about Handy, the Uber of house cleaning, and its bumpy start since it launched three years ago. Like Uber, Handy is part of what’s becoming known as the “1099 economy.” Consumers use the Handy app to hire, pay and rate home cleaners, who are not considered official employees of the start-up and so they don’t retain the typical benefits and protections that come with traditional employment. While much of the article examines the corporate experience of expanding Handy, Griswold also writes about the experience of workers who do the actual cleaning. For example, the company is being sued in California for a number of alleged labor violations, with the underlying argument that while Handy treats its workers like employees, it classifies them as independent contractors. Griswold writes: “The cleaners I spoke with are torn between warm feelings for a platform that affords them flexibility and relatively good earnings and a frustration that Handy treats them like disposable contractors despite managing them quite closely.”

The Hill: U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez weighed in on the “on-demand” economy, saying the discussions surrounding business models such as Uber, which classify their workers as independent contractors, present a “false choice” between worker protections and innovation, according to reporter David McCabe. Perez’s comments came during an interview with the news site Engadget. Acknowledging that the Department of Labor’s ability to address the issue is limited, Perez said: “Many people have discussed the need for a third category of employment. Such a solution would require legislative action from Congress.”

The Nation: In “Zero Waste Remains a Dirty Business,” Michelle Chen writes that while some cities are reforming their sanitation and recycling systems to reduce the negative impacts of waste, the progressive approach isn’t always being extended to workers. She cites statistics that find waste and recycling collection has the fifth highest rate of fatality in the U.S., with fatalities 10 times more likely than average. Chen cited a report from LAANE, an anti-poverty nonprofit, that found better labor conditions are typically found in municipally controlled waste management systems or “high road” contracting systems, in which municipalities have exclusive contracts with well-regulated companies. Chen writes: “By contrast, so-called open-permit systems, which employ multiple haulers simultaneously, are rife with inefficient routes and poor labor conditions, because the jobs go to contractors that might just bid to do the job cheaply, not safely, at workers’ expense.”

The Washington Post: Reporter Ylan Q. Mui writes that the raise — something we’ve all come to expect in a job — might soon be a relic of the past. Instead, employers are looking for cheaper ways to compensate workers for a job well done, such as one-time bonuses, more time off or paid gym memberships. While Mui talks to many workers who like the non-monetary compensation, she also noted that such benefits are typically only available in so-called white-collared industries. She writes: “The decline of the raise could help explain one of the most frustrating puzzles of the America’s lumbering economic recovery: stagnant wages. Wage growth has been stuck at about 2 percent for the past five years despite a rapid drop in unemployment and a surge in hiring since 2014. Without a bigger bump in their paychecks, many workers feel the recovery remains elusive.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.