WMC Women Under Siege

U.S. guest-worker programs systematically discriminate against women

Just out of graduate school in Mexico City, Lissette Marquez longed to travel the world on an American cruise ship.  

She was thrilled to obtain a guest-worker visa that allowed her to join a ship crew in California. But instead of the ideal job she had envisioned, Marquez said she found herself toiling long hours, earning less than a $4 hourly wage, and feeling isolated. She told researchers that her supervisors “were known to demand sexual favors of her female shipmates, some of whom suffered sexual assaults.”  

Each year, the federal government grants a set number of temporary visas that allow companies to hire foreigners for high-skilled jobs, many in the tech industry, or lower-skilled jobs in agriculture, hospitality, landscaping, and other seasonal work. The length of stay varies with the type of visa and job.  

“We worked 13 hours a day; we didn’t have a single day off,” Marquez said. “We just got hours here and there for sleeping, for resting, or for some recreation.”  

Marquez’s experience is shared in a new study that found guest-worker programs systematically foster discrimination against women, disproportionately affecting them across industry sectors and visa categories.

Protesters at a 2008 nationwide day of action on behalf of Gulf Coast guest workers who were victims of human trafficking. (ACLU of Southern California)

The study, titled “Engendering Exploitation: Labor Inequality in U.S. Labor Migration Programs,” says that although flaws inherent in guest-worker programs also affect men, recruiters and employers more often place women into visa categories and jobs that pay less and have fewer protections than those of male workers. Sexism comes into play. “It’s often based on notions of what women can and cannot do,” said Sarah Paoletti, director of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. 

The clinic, along with the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, or Center for Migrant Rights, (CDM), released the study’s initial findings as part of a September 12 panel discussion in Washington. A full report will be released later this year. Rachel Micah-Jones, CDM executive director, said the nonprofit decided to embark on the research in collaboration with the clinic after hearing various complaints of discrimination about guest-worker programs from women for about a decade. 

The study makes a number of recommendations to U.S. government agencies intended to protect female migrants, including making guest-worker programs “subject to the same rules and protections so that unscrupulous employers and recruiters do not use the patchwork of visa regulations to evade liability or to obscure the nature of abuses against women.”  

Among the study’s key findings:  

  • Seventy percent of female workers reported gender discrimination in their recruitment or employment, nearly half of those surveyed were paid less than the federal minimum wage, and 75 percent had no access to food and medical or legal services. Women also said they felt trapped and feared leaving their jobs because of debt or threats of retaliation.
  • Marquez was among 34 women surveyed who reported having experienced wage theft by her employers, sexual harassment—and human trafficking, although she did not go into details—as well as discrimination and barriers to the basic services mentioned above.
  • Lack of government oversight and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws are to blame for such abusive conditions, Paoletti said.
  • A deeply entrenched gender bias starts even before women arrive in the United States, with recruitment fees in other countries that often exacerbate women’s vulnerability in the workplace, the study found.       

“They’re in a situation of debt that makes it harder for them to leave, harder for them to complain,” Paoletti said.  

Recruiters and employers frequently exclude women from temporary visa categories and jobs that come with some benefits, such as the H-2A visa for agricultural workers that requires employers to pay for housing for temporary hires. Most often, women obtain H-2B visas for seasonal work in food processing, housekeeping, and other hospitality services that don’t come with free housing.  

“These [latter] are the sectors that are increasingly being fed by labor migration programs that have a history of abuse and exploitation,” Paoletti said.  

Adareli Ponce, a native of the Mexican state of Hidalgo who worked packing chocolates in a Louisiana factory on an H-2B visa, said women’s struggles to obtain U.S. work begins at home because “there’s a preference for recruiting men.”  

“That affects us a lot because we also want to work, we want to earn, and we’re not the ‘weak sex’ as people try to paint us,” she said.  

It took her two years to secure a visa—and the factory job was her only offer. Once in Louisiana, Ponce said she felt the sting of discrimination and learned that even though female workers were the majority, their pay was less than that of their male counterparts. When she and other women tried to complain, she said, their superiors insisted that as foreign workers they lacked any rights in this country.  

“We really felt like we couldn’t do anything,” Ponce said. “We had to be silent because it was the only option we had to be able to work.”  

Ponce has since become a vocal advocate for other female migrant workers and says her story is just one of many involving women—many of them single mothers—who keep quiet about workplace abuses for fear of losing their job.  

“My story is just one of thousands,” she said.  

Marquez, who left her job on the ship after a couple of months, said she hopes that telling her story helps brings to light the hostile conditions that guest workers often endure, so that changes can be made to protect them.  

“In my case, the laws didn’t really work in my favor,” she said. “But I’m hoping that in the future we’ll have legislation that will work in favor of migrant workers.”  

Yet now, with the Trump presidency, not only is an improvement of conditions for women guest workers not even on the table for discussion, certain types of visas may become more difficult to get. In April, President Trump signed an executive order initiating a review of the visa process, specifically singling out the popular H-1B program. (H-1B visas are granted to well-educated doctors, engineers, mathematics, etc.) Trump is targeting this particular type of visa as part of his rhetoric to “put America first.”  

In contrast, the Department of Homeland Security announced in July a one-time increase of up to 15,000 temporary H-2B visas in order to prevent a labor shortage in the U.S.—but that will expire on September 15. The H-2B visas are the type of non-agricultural visa used by many of the women who participated in the study. 

Trump himself is looking for low-paid employees, especially in the jobs usually given to women. It was widely reported in July that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida has been seeking H-2B visas to hire some 70 cooks, waiters, and housekeepers in the fall. The Hill reported that cooks at both Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s golf course are paid $13.34 per hour. Servers receive $11.88 per hour, while housekeeping positions—traditionally women’s jobs—pay only $10.33 per hour.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The final paragraph has been edited to reflect that Trump's hiring of guest workers may not be reflective of his overall policy.

More articles by Category: Economy, Gender-based violence, Immigration, Misogyny, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Guest workers, Visas, Trump



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