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Bill decimates migrant worker protections

A few years ago I met a woman named Eva who had traveled from Mexico to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to work at a crab-processing plant on an H-2B visa. To cover the passport and visa fees, travel costs and other expenses that would pile up during her journey, Eva had taken out a loan of approximately $1,000 at 10 percent interest.

With the wages she earned as a crab picker, it took her six months in the U.S. to repay that loan.

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As the founder and Executive Director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), a binational workers' rights organization based in Mexico City and Maryland, I have supported H-2B workers like Eva in defending their rights for over a decade. Eva's story was featured in CDM and American University's 2010 report "Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles of Migrant Worker Women in the Maryland Crab Industry." All of the women interviewed for "Picked Apart" were paid approximately $2 per pound of crabmeat they picked, and over half had had wages deducted for knives, gloves and other work tools. Many had earned little money due to long periods of "benching," waiting without work for days or weeks while continuing to pay rent to their employers.

This kind of exploitation is not unique to the crab industry. Illegal fees and debt in international labor recruitment are endemic across industries that hire H-2B workers, as are paltry wages and dangerous working conditions. Tens of thousands of workers experience similar conditions each year while working across the U.S. in landscaping, forestry and the carnival industry.

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In March, I wrote an op-ed in The Sun because the future of the H-2B program was uncertain, and I urged the Obama administration to ensure that reforms to the program prioritized workers' rights. When new regulations for the H-2B program were issued by the administration in April, they included many basic yet crucial protections for workers and settled a long-running debate about how the H-2B program would be run.

The April regulations seek to counteract many of the abuses experienced by workers like Eva by increasing transparency in the labor recruitment process; guaranteeing a baseline wage and number of hours; and requiring employers to cover visa and travel fees to protect workers from debt bondage.

Now, members of Congress backed by industries are staging a full-frontal attack on these gains, threatening to decimate hard-won protections for H-2B workers in Maryland and throughout the country.

Our own Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, has taken the lead in these attacks through both legislation and appropriations riders. In late October, she and three other business-driven senators introduced a bill that would expand the H-2B visa program while stripping protections for U.S. and migrant workers alike. The following week, four House Republicans followed suit.

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Now, as the Senate and House debate appropriations bills, basic worker protections are under imminent threat. Riders — or proposed additions — to the appropriations bills would allow employers to pay H-2B workers less than the average local wage for their type of work and eliminate minimum hours guarantees. While reducing worker protections, these provisions would expand the number of H-2B workers from the current 66,000 per year to an estimated 200,000 by 2017.

Senator Mikulski and her allies have argued that uncertainty and bureaucracy have made the H-2B program difficult for U.S. employers to use. Admittedly, litigation and the rulemaking process that took place last spring created short-term uncertainty for the program, and Congress' chronic underfunding of the Department of Labor has sometimes made the process of visa certification slow.

But the solution to these obstacles cannot be what these legislators have proposed — stripping essential worker protections and oversight from the H-2B program while expanding it drastically. Our leaders in Congress must be stopped from rewarding business interests at the expense of workers' rights and safety. I urge my neighbors in Maryland and members of Congress to ensure that workers' rights are not buried in the ongoing appropriations battle or undermined through ill-conceived legislation.

Rachel Micah-Jones is the founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc. and the convener and chair of the International Labor Recruitment Working Group. Her email is rachel@cdmigrante.org.

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