'Guest Worker' or Slave?

In the public debate over immigration reform, President Bush has been pushing a guest worker program that would allow immigrant workers to apply for temporary employment in certain sectors. But employers of more than 200,000 guest workers today routinely exploit temporary workers, according to Close to Slavery, a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that analyzes the existing guest worker program.

The report—based on thousands of interviews with guest workers and scores of legal cases and findings—documents that workers are frequently cheated out of wages, held captive by bosses who seize their documents, and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries. "This guest worker program's the closest thing I've ever seen to slavery," wrote House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel in the report. The report also compares the current H-2 guest workers program to the failed bracero program of more than 50 years ago, which promised to put 10 percent of Mexican guest workers' earnings into bank accounts to serve as a pension plan. The workers were never paid. The estimated losses are equivalent to hundreds of millions of today's dollars.

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