Justice at Work has extensive experience with survivors of trafficking within the temporary work visa system (including H2-A, H2-B and J-1 workers). Many aspects of the current system lend themselves to trafficking and other abuses; we urge DOL to enforce existing regulations and strengthen worker protections in each of these areas.
First, many temporary workers are recruited by third party intermediaries, some of whom charge illegal recruitment fees to access U.S. jobs. This, in addition to visas and travel costs which should be borne by employers but are often in fact paid by workers, means that many temporary visa holders begin their U.S. employment in significant debt, often in the form of high interest loans that would be nearly impossible to repay by working in their home countries. A 2019 report by the Internal Labour Organization, available at https://www.ilo.org/ipec/Informationresources/WCMS_716930/lang--en/index.htm, shows a clear correlation between this debt and ending up in situations of labor trafficking. DOL should enforce regulations that keep workers out of this situation and protect them from economic coercion.
Second, the majority of temporary workers are bound to a single employer, as their work authorization and visa depend on continued employment with the employer named in their visa. When there are abuses on a jobsite, a temporary worker is left with a difficult choice: return to their home country immediately, fall out of legal status, or stay on the job despite mistreatment and violations of law. As mentioned above, many workers are not able to return home because of debt related to their recruitment. Many traffickers are keenly aware of this trap and use threats of reporting workers or sending them back to their home countries early as a form of coercion. Justice at Work urges DOL to develop policies that allow freedom of movement for workers and grant workers the freedom to leave abusive employers. These policies should involve swift investigation of reports of labor trafficking, certification of and assistance in petitions for immigration relief, cooperation in obtaining continued immigration status for trafficking victims, and coordination with ERO/ICE to ensure removal proceedings are not pursued against survivors of labor trafficking.
Finally, DOL should conduct meaningful monitoring of the temporary visa program, including foreign labor recruiters, to prevent retaliation and blacklisting, which are additional forms of coercion that traffickers frequently use to force labor. Because of the extreme power imbalance in the temporary work visa system, employers keep workers from reporting abuse by threatening not to bring them back in subsequent seasons, or to tell other employers they are "uncooperative" and keep them from getting any temporary visas in future years. Meaningful protection from retaliation will empower temporary visa holders to report workplace abuses to law enforcement.