Research Reveals Exploitation of Women in U.S. Guestworker Programs

Data collection, monitoring, and enforcement needed to address harassment, discrimination

(Washington, DC) — Temporary labor migration programs in the United States systematically foster discrimination against women, according to a preview of research released today by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic (TLC). The exploitation of migrant workers disproportionately affects women across industry sectors and visa categories, ranging from wage theft to sexual harassment to human trafficking.

The policy brief, Engendering Exploitation: Gender Inequality in U.S. Labor Migration Programs, is based on extensive desk research and detailed surveys of 34 women who participated in five labor visa programs. According to the research, discrimination begins at recruitment, when employers place women into a limited range of gendered industries and roles, such as childcare, food processing, fruit and vegetable sorting, and hospitality and housekeeping.

“Lack of government oversight and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws have fostered a culture that allows employers to prey on migrant workers from the moment they are recruited and throughout their employment with little recourse for justice,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, founder and executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. “Because of deep entrenched gender bias and discrimination in temporary labor migration programs, women are systematically placed into fields that have lower wages, lower earnings potential, and fewer protections.”

The early research findings detailed in Engendering Exploitation note the personal stories of harassment and discrimination of women recruited for jobs in the U.S. Among the key findings:

  • Seventy percent of the workers surveyed observed some form of sex-based discrimination in their recruitment or employment. Some women reported being denied the ability to apply for jobs under certain visa programs;
  • Nearly half of those surveyed reported being paid below the federal minimum wage and 43 percent reported not being paid overtime;
  • Seventy-five percent of study participants reported barriers to access basic services such as food, telephone, and medical and legal services;
  • Women reported feeling trapped, unable to report abuse or to leave due to excessive debt, constant monitoring, or threats of retaliation. These conditions in the workplace are ripe for human trafficking; and,
  • U.S. temporary work visa programs fail to account for the role of women as parents and primary family caregivers. Workers reportedly spent an average of 70 percent of their earnings on childcare and other family support.

Engendering Exploitation details policy changes needed to address gender-based discrimination in temporary labor migration programs to protect women, including the collection and publication of recruiter data, increased monitoring, meaningful enforcement, and effective oversight by government agencies to provide access to grievance mechanisms and support services.

“Our current patchwork of regulations has allowed unscrupulous employers and recruiters to abuse women without fear of reprisal,” said Sarah Paoletti, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic. “We must improve our oversight and enforcement to protect women from discrimination and human trafficking by ensuring better mechanisms to track and monitor the activities by these groups and provide a way for women to access the justice they are entitled to.”

A full report of the study’s findings will be released later this year.

A collection of stories from migrant workers interviewed for the study is available online. Women recruited for jobs in the U.S. shared their stories at a press event today in Washington, DC. Highlights from their remarks are below:

Barbara Reyna, J-1 au-pair in Ohio: “Since there was no system backing me up, I decided to seek justice on my own, and with the help of my family. I was able to recover some of the money I paid, but the sponsor agency retaliated against me, prohibiting my future participation in the au pair program. I’m here to demand that temporary labor programs in the United States guarantee transparency and access to justice for everyone.”  

Mayra, B-1 domestic worker in Florida (*last name withheld for confidentiality purposes): “My experience was extremely disillusioning. I only lived to work. A normal workday was 15 hours. In addition to taking care of the children, I had to clean the house, cook, run errands for the family. I didn’t have any breaks. I was only allowed to leave the house on Sundays after finishing my chores, but I had to tell my employer where I was at all times. I didn’t have contact with other people, and I felt alone all the time.”

Adareli Ponce Hernandez, H-2B worker who processed seafood in Maryland and packed chocolates in Louisiana: “Upon arriving to work, I realized that the supervisors didn’t respect us as women or as human beings.  The men who carried boxes earned more than us women, who packed chocolates, for example. We couldn’t speak up out of fear that they would fire us, and we needed the work – above all to pay off the recruitment fees the recruiter charged us. And precisely, when we finally joined together to demand our rights, the company refused to hire us again the next season.”

“Rosa,” TN worker in Wisconsin (*name withheld for confidentiality purposes): “Although I was grateful for the opportunity to go to the United States and experience the culture there, I was deceived by my employers. They promised me a salary they failed to pay; a contract they didn’t respect; and a professional development opportunity that they never fulfilled.”

Lissette Marquez Pacheco, C-1/D cruise ship worker in California: “I was expecting to work a lot, maybe excessively; however, I never anticipated that I’d work 13 or 14 hours every day, without a single free day to rest. I didn’t expect that the treatment would be so authoritarian and stress-inducing, or that my pay would be below $4 an hour. I felt enslaved and trapped on that ship, far from everything.”


About Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc.

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) envisions a world where migrant workers’ rights are respected and laws and policies reflect their voices. Through education, outreach, and leadership development; intake, evaluation, and referral services; litigation support and direct representation; and policy advocacy; CDM empowers Mexico-based migrant workers to defend and protect their rights as they move between their home communities in Mexico and their workplaces in the United States.

About University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic

Since its founding in 2006, the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic (TLC) has represented individuals seeking asylum and other forms of immigration relief from across the globe and has worked alongside and on behalf of international human rights and community-based organizations on a range of rights-based issues, particularly as they relate to migrants.