Report Uncovers Significant Abuses of Migrant Workers in the U.S

Families across theUnited Statesremember with nostalgia the food, rides, and atmosphere of the local fairs and carnivals, but hidden behind the memories and bright lights are migrant workers who pay a high price to create these experiences. On the United Nations World Day of Social Justice, the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic and Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) released a report, Taken for a Ride: Migrant Workers in the U.S. Fair and Carnival Industry, that describes the abuses of migrant workers who form the backbone of one of America’s favorite pastimes. The information for the report was gathered using in-depth interviews of migrant fair and carnival workers.

Fair and carnival companies bring migrant workers to theU.S.on temporary work visas, known as H-2B visas, to build and operate rides, set up games and serve food at concessions stands. The workers travel with the companies from state to state, typically living in filthy and cramped trailers. Taken for a Ride uncovers the following abuses and structural defects in the H-2B temporary worker program:

  • unfair recruitment processes;
  • wage and hour abuses;
  • significant health and safety risks;
  • lack of access to workers’ compensation;
  • limited access to medical care;
  • isolated and substandard living conditions; and
  • limited access to legal representation and justice in the courts.

José Isabel de Lira, a former fair and carnival worker fromMexico stated, “When I went to work at the fairs, I was paid less than half of what they promised. I was tricked with false promises and on top of that, the housing conditions were terrible. The trailers were infested [with pests] and were not clean.” After visiting workers at a fair inMaryland, Student Investigator Xavier E. Albán reflected, “As we met with these workers and they showed us the trailers where they slept, it was obvious that they wanted to tell their stories, but had few opportunities to do so.” When workers complain about the low pay, or unsafe and unsanitary conditions, they face retaliation and threats of deportation or blacklisting.

The report provides comprehensive recommendations for change that are particularly timely as Congress debates immigration reform that would likely impact temporary work visa programs. “We urge Congress to include important worker protections in any immigration reform that would prevent exploitation of the most vulnerable in theU.S.workforce,” stated Rachel Micah-Jones, CDM’s Executive Director. To mitigate these problems, the report recommends that Congress enact retaliation protections for workers who report abuse, extend federally-funded legal services to H-2B workers, close the minimum and overtime wage loophole for amusement industries in federal labor laws, and require that job orders be treated as enforceable contracts. The Department of Labor should forbid employers, recruiters and their agents from charging recruitment fees, conduct inspections of fair employers payroll, and issue rules related to training, breaks and safety equipment to protect the health and safety of fair and carnival workers and the public.

The experiences documented by workers in Taken for a Ride are similar to those of H-2B workers in other industries and demonstrate the structural flaws in the H-2B program, despite attempts to improve the program through recent regulations.

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