Guest Workers

Workers in protective clothing processing fish on a conveyor belt at a seafood production facility.

It’s impossible to talk about automation without occasionally mentioning the possible threat to human jobs. But concerns about losing human jobs to robots coexist with the very real and immediate problem of labor shortages. The ongoing shortage of workers has been a spur to automation…but it’s also connected with some other complicated issues. One is the situation with Guest Workers.

What are Guest Workers?

The United States has for at least a century had arrangements with other nations to borrow seasonal workers. When we read that the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association received eleven shipments of workers they had ordered from Puerto Rico, it sounds confusing at the very least. Hawaii and Puerto Rico were both U.S. territories at the time, but many states also had arrangements to bring workers in from Puerto Rico for agricultural jobs. Most of these workers went home for the winters, allowing growers in Northeastern states to save money by hiring workers temporarily with no need to support them after the harvest came in.

That was in 1900. During World War II, the Bracero program brought workers from Mexico to replace American men who had gone to war. The program continued until 1964, bringing in some four million agricultural workers and becoming notorious for its human rights violations.

Now, workers on H-2 visas can hire foreign workers for 10 months or less, if they can prove that they tried unsuccessfully to hire U.S.-born workers first. There are other regulations: guest workers must be provided with free housing and reimbursed for transportation to and from their home countries, the wages must be roughly the same as either the federal minimum wage or the going rate locally, and employers must meet safety requirements.

Agricultural workers and landscape workers are the largest group of employees in guest worker programs, but there are also workers in hospitality among food processing jobs.

Does the system work?

A recent report in Reason says otherwise. Hopeful employers must begin filing requests for workers 150 days before the beginning of the work season and must make sincere efforts to hire American workers before they can have their requests for H-2 visas approved. The total number of visas allowed is capped, and it is much smaller than the actual number of workers needed. Employers are chosen by lottery, and each employer either gets all the visas they requested or none.

The guest workers are selected by their governments, often from  Mexico but also from Ukraine, Serbia, and other places. Since transportation must be paid by the employer, workers from countries closer to the United States will be most desirable to companies in the U.S. The CATO Institute claims that people wanting to join the guest workers program from Mexico are often expected to pay bribes to get a visa.

We no longer talk about employers “ordering” workers or receiving a shipment of workers, but the process is still a bit like that.

Is automation a solution?

The problem of too few workers, including too few guest workers, could eventually be solved by automation. The problem of guest workers is not just about numbers, though. The jobs that tend to be filled by guest workers are generally jobs that U.S.-born workers will not apply for. Sometimes the working conditions are unacceptable to U.S.-born workers, which creates some ethical quandaries right there.

The jobs being taken over by automation are sometimes in that category, but often they are jobs that people want to do.  In principle, these jobs should all be dull, dirty, and dangerous. In fact, drivers, cashiers, bankers, pharmacy techs, researchers, paralegals, reporters, and bartenders are losing their jobs to machines. There are roughly 3,000,000 more job openings in the U.S. than there are unemployed people, but there isn’t always a good match between unemployed people and job openings.