Spotlight Exclusives

Disposable Workforce? Providing Justice for Temporary Workers

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American policymakers and employers are increasingly looking to temporary visa programs to fill jobs in low-wage industries across the United States. While the debate continues about whether Americans are available to fill these jobs, the fact is these workers are already here and they are among the most vulnerable in our workforce.  

It is difficult to discern how many temporary visa workers are present in the U.S. due to the plethora of visa types and the lack of precise data. These workers may come to the U.S. for two months and never return, or they may come for eleven months a year for twenty years in a row.  

To reduce the exploitation of temporary foreign workers, we need to accept and defend them as part of the American workforce, and make it easier for them to report abuse by their employers whether they are in the U.S. or have returned home.

Temporary foreign workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, and their problems often begin before they are even issued a visa in their home countries. In order to pay all the fees and costs the recruiter charges – sometimes lawfully, sometimes not – workers go into debt, some using family property as collateral.  

Most foreign workers arrive in the U.S. unable to speak English and not aware of their legal rights or where to seek help. Deep in debt, they are very hesitant to complain.  

Taking advantage of these vulnerabilities, employers submit temporary foreign workers to all sorts of abuses, including wage theft, failure to report injuries, and sexual assault.  

Those workers who do stand up to their employers soon realize that legal challenges can be protracted. It is also likely they will have to continue litigation from home once their visas expire, a daunting scenario presenting many legal and practical challenges.

Unfortunately, the more common scenario is that workers leave the U.S. without complaining because they do not know their rights, or are too scared they will be sent home by their employer if they demand these rights. This fear is well founded, as employers often decide that sending workers home is an effective way to silence them.  

The unique challenge temporary workers face is that their ability to stay in the U.S. is tied to a visa. If they lose their job, they have to leave, complicating redress in the event of exploitation.

One key element to reduce exploitation of temporary visa workers is to pursue what۪s called “portable justice”the right and ability of workers to access justice in the country of employment even after they have returned home.  

Global Workers Justice Alliance is helping to create a system to realize portable justice by providing help for temporary workers who have faced abuse in the U.S. yet have returned to their home countries. Our work includes collaborating with allies to advocate for temporary workers۪ rights, educating migrants on their rights, and providing litigation support for workers who have cases moving forward in U.S. courts.  

Portable justice is critical, because if employers realize that workers can find justice, regardless of where they go, then they will be less likely to take advantage of their mobile workforce.  

While initiatives like ours are an important piece of the puzzle, they cannot overcome an environment where workers are seen as disposable. The truth is that employers and policymakers often fail to regard temporary workers as anything more than guests who are only here as long as they are useful. As a result, no U.S. temporary worker visa has been designed to account for the foreseeable consequence of temporary workers leaving the U.S. with unresolved legal issues.  

This problem is hard to resolve in an environment where temporary workers are a low priority. In the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill regarding the future of temporary worker programs, enabling workers to take legal action against abusive employers is not an issue of concern.

Unfortunately, temporary foreign workers are not U.S. citizens and have little influence over those making the rules governing their workplace. They are also difficult to organize, though a small group of unions and organizations have made important inroads. Faced with limited resources, many organizations do not help temporary workers because they know they will leave.  

All workers, however, have something to gain from better protections for temporary workers. If an employer can lower its costs by hiring foreigner workers and then get away with underpaying them or mistreating them, there is a disincentive to hire U.S. workers who are less likely to tolerate such abuse.

As temporary foreign worker programs expand in the near future, we must move past seeing these individuals as “guests” and instead see them as workers. If we don۪t start considering them a permanent part of our workforce, we will continue to see employers exploit and dispose of them.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Cathleen Caron is the founder and executive director of the Global Workers Justice Alliance.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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