The Biden-Harris Administration Should Ensure Protections for Migrant Workers

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens across the country and millions of families remain at home to keep safe, essential workers continue to risk their lives in every sector of the economy. Despite their sacrifice, workers on the front lines have often been denied basic protections. In one particularly stark example, Maribel and Reyna, two crawfish workers in Louisiana, watched as dozens of their coworkers fell sick with COVID-19. Despite the outbreak, their employers failed to provide them with masks and instead forced them to continue working and living in crowded, dangerous conditions. When two workers became sick and sought medical attention, their employer fired them and reported them to immigration authorities

For migrant workers, labor abuse didn’t start with the COVID-19 crisis. Rather, the pandemic has laid bare the ways in which our country’s temporary visa programs systematically risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who come to the United States every year. Workers are often recruited from their home countries with false promises. Instead, many discover hazardous working conditions, deplorable housing, and stolen wages. They are often unable to quit or return home because they are indebted to recruiters who charged them illegal fees in exchange for the promise of employment. Their visas and work authorization tie them to their employers, making it virtually impossible for them to find alternative employment. And with little government oversight or enforcement, unscrupulous employers are able to continue profiting from this exploitation. 

As the country reckons with the havoc wrought by the pandemic, the economic crisis, and four years of harmful government action, it must prioritize the needs of its most vulnerable workers. 

Migration that Works, a coalition of labor, migration, civil rights, anti-trafficking organizations and academics, has outlined how the new Biden-Harris administration can chart a new way forward in its transition plan, Comprehensive Recommendations for the Presidential Transition Team on Preventing Abuses of Internationally Recruited Workers

The MTW transition plan provides detailed recommendations for the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, State, and Justice as well as the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We call on the Biden-Harris administration to:

  • Implement realistic, worker-protective policies and practices to end recruiter fees. Recruiters–not workers–should face consequences when illegal fees are charged. 
  • Provide immigration relief and work authorization for whistleblowers. Labor laws can only be effectively enforced when workers know that they will not face retaliation for reporting workplace mistreatment.
  • Revive the interagency task force on international labor recruitment
  • Improve the transparency of temporary work visas by creating an accessible website with detailed information about visas, jobs, and recruiters.
  • Overhaul the visa programs so that each visa category has consistent regulations under a single framework.
  • Create an Office of International Labor Recruitment Certification and Oversight with the power to block program violators from accessing future visas. 
  • Improve employer accountability by requiring all who benefit from migrant labor agree to joint liability. 
  • Improve worker education and access to information by cooperating with governments in countries of origin to thwart misleading propaganda and by enhancing information provided during consular processing of temporary work visas.
  • Increase resources for enforcement so that unscrupulous employers and recruiters cannot continue profiting off of the mistreatment of migrant workers.
  • Expand labor and employment protections for migrant workers, particularly during the pandemic. 

These changes alone are only the beginning.

These changes alone are only the beginning. Legislative reforms— to end the current system of tied visas and including a pathway to citizenship for all temporary work visa holders—are also necessary. The Biden-Harris administration must reform our labor migration system to ensure all workers are treated with dignity and respect. 

Migration that Works would like to thank Georgetown University Law Center Federal Legislation Clinic Director Cori Alonso-Yoder and students Jocelyn Westray and Marquisha Johns for contributing to this transition plan. 

Click here to read our Transition Memo.

Social media toolkit about transition memo: here.

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