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Ness: Plight of guest workers

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Immanuel Ness, political scientist

Immanuel Ness, a renowned labor activist and professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York presented on the plight of guest workers and immigration reform on the second day of Global Goes Local, St. Cloud State’s conference on immigrant workers and families.

Titled, “Neoliberal Markets, Migration, and Guest Workers,” Ness’s presentation discussed how capitalist markets gave rise to the exploitation of guest workers, especially in unskilled trades, making them indentured servants to unscrupulous employers.

At present, there are approximately 12-14 million undocumented workers and between 3-4 million guest workers in the United States. Since 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed, U.S. businesses have been relying on a system of migrant labor using guest workers in jobs that are primarily unskilled. These guest workers’ conditions in the U.S. include confinement to one employer, wage withholding and onerous work arrangements. Due to a lack of laws and regulations governing minimum wages and hourly wage standards, employers can and often do mistreat and exploit these guest workers.

Ness outlined some of the reasons why guest workers choose to leave their home countries and their families to live a life of indentured servitude in North America and Europe. The primary reason is due to worsening economic conditions and the desperation to find employment. Workers then seek to go to other countries so that they can provide for their families and communities. Using remittances, they can send money home to support their families in their home countries. However, it must be noted that these remittances have declined in the last few years due to the global economic crisis.   

Ness concluded by describing ways in which guest workers could protect themselves. Two main methods used by migrant laborers at present are:

Escaping – leaving the abusive employer, become an illegal and perhaps be treated better.

Unionization – This is already happening in certain professions such as nursing, where guest workers organize to protect themselves from employer abuse.

In its third year, the conference is sponsored by these St. Cloud State entities: Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, School of Public Affairs, School of Health and Human Services and Herberger Business School.

Off-campus sponsors include University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota Chicano Studies Department, Macalester College Global Citizenship Institute, Initiative Foundation, MidCountry Bank, Service Employees International Union Local 26, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 1189, and the Gender Studies, Economics and Sociology departments at the College of St. Saint Benedict/Saint John's University.

For more information, contact Stephen Philion at sephilion@stcloudstate.edu or 320-308-5497. 

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