POLITICS

Guest-worker programs are anti-market

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Timothy P. Carney

If you wanted to create a situation where workers have virtually no power vis-a-vis their empoyers and supervisors, you might create a guest-worker program.

If you think guest-worker programs are a great "common-sense immigration compromise," or if you think the free market is the scourge of agricultural workers, you need to read this post by Adam Ozimek, at the excellent blog Modeled Behavior, which is new to Forbes.

Immigrant farmhands are apparently very vulnerable to sexual harrassment, according to a Human Rights Watch report. One liberal blogger blames this on "the realities of private power." Ozimek explains why it's the realities if government policy that create such power disparities in some work arenas.

Perhaps the single greatest way tha the government worsens the powerlessness of legal immigrants is through immigration laws which tie them to one employer. The H-2A visa is the guest worker program for the agricultural industry. Under this program employers request to hire a number of immigrants to fill their needs for a specific period of time. So when these immigrants come here, they are authorized only to work for the employer that brought them here. It is obvious how this gives the employers power over the workers that would not be present either under a free market or even better immigration policies.

When President Bush proposed a new guest-worker visa program five years ago, I wrote about how these workers would lack the market power they need:

They cannot strike out on their own — the White House’s proposal explicitly forbids Y visa holders from working as independent contractors. And they will have trouble if they quit to look for a government-approved job because if they aren’t working, they have to leave the country. For these workers, "you’re fired!" or "I quit" basically means "you’re deported, too!" That keeps workers from demanding very much from their employers.

In the sugarcane fields last century, this was on full display, I wrote in a 2006 magazine piece. One sugar farmer let the mask slip:

In 1940, one grower wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that if Washington were to help them find labor, the Bahamas would be a far better source than either the U.S. or its territory Puerto Rico. “The vast difference between the Bahama Island labor and domestic, including Puerto Rican,” wrote the farmer, “is that labor transported from the Bahama Islands can be deported and sent home, if it does not work, which cannot be done in the instance of labor from domestic United States or Puerto Rico.”

The alternative would be a simpler immigration policy. Let in as many people as we can while making pretty sure none are terrorists or serial rapists, and then, even if we limit the duration of their stay, let them work and live just as the rest of us do while they're here..

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