America is a nation of immigrants. All our families came from somewhere else — many as unwelcome newcomers. Most faced blatant discrimination, extreme labor-related exploitation and in many cases, abject poverty — conditions we have tried to eradicate for generations. It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do to eliminate this exploitation, especially the exploitation of thousands of migrant children who end up working in punishing jobs throughout the US — including the construction industry — where our existing child labor laws are insufficient to adequately protect these children.
The New York Times recently published an investigation that highlighted the “explosive growth of child labor throughout the United States.” “This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.”
While our existing child labor laws seem powerless to stop this blatant abuse and labor exploitation of children – many who are under the age of 13 – our current visa programs permitting seasonal and temporary work visas to thousands each year – equally in need of serious reform – if not elimination.
These visa programs were originally intended for employers facing “real” labor shortages in seasonal and temporary jobs and allows for the temporary hiring of thousands of migrant workers each year to fill these jobs. Unfortunately, these programs are constantly abused by dishonest employers who use visa programs because it is cheaper than hiring skilled union workers – and as a consequence – thousands of skilled union workers throughout the US are displaced each year.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) show that, in the seven major industries in which these workers are employed, nearly $1.8 billion in wages have been stolen from these workers between 2000 and 2021.
The US does not have a worker shortage in the construction industry. We have a serious problem with dishonest employers and their trade association advocates and lobbyists who readily make excuses for their unwillingness to provide health benefits and pay a fair and family-sustaining wage for a full day’s work.
These trade association advocates and lobbyists are part of a well-financed network of non-union contractors funding the special interests, like the H-2B Workforce Coalition, who have lobbied hard for over a decade to make it easier to hire unskilled foreign workers to replace highly skilled Americans. They have pushed a false narrative that expanding these worker visa programs will solve a construction industry workforce shortage. Nothing could be farther from the truth – again — there is no workforce shortage in the construction industry.
One of the most egregious examples of visa exploitation came to light when a lawsuit was filed in Federal Court in New Jersey in 2021, against a Hindu sect known as BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha).
BAPS is accused of luring laborers from India to work on temples in the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and in Robbinsville N.J. with the promise of making enough wages to send back home. BAPS then proceeded to force these employees to work 90 hour weeks for $1.20 per hour. According to the lawsuit, one worker died from forced labor.
While the BAPS case may be one of the more egregious examples of visa abuse and exploitation, it is certainly not the only case.
It is troubling that the Federal Government continues to increase the size of these types of programs while unsuspecting workers continue to be taken advantage of and exploited. With the Administration considering changes to these programs, there is an opportunity now to correct the flaws.
New regulations can be issued to protect visa workers by mandating a screening process to weed out and prohibit unscrupulous employers from participating in programs who have a track record of violating wage and hour labor laws. While we need pathways for more immigrants and migrants to come to the United States and work, these visa programs are not a model for a fair and safe pathway. They should be cleaned up and reformed — or be eliminated.
Anthony Abrantes is the Assistant Executive Secretary-Treasurer for the Eastern Atlantic State Regional Council of Carpenters, which represents nearly 43,000 Union Carpenters from, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Virginia, & West Virginia.