Can an international treaty protect the rights of H-2B guest workers in the U.S.?
If it can, count on a long wait.
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In 2005, a group of Mexican workers complained to their own government, alleging that U.S. authorities had failed to enforce even the most basic employment rights of those in America on visas.
Two years later, the Mexican government invoked a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement to demand a detailed accounting of how the U.S. government protects its H-2B guest workers.
Two more years later, the U.S. government still hasn’t responded.
Given that three federal agencies are responsible for various parts of the H-2B program, that silence doesn’t surprise Laura Abel, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, who represents the Mexican workers.
“When you have overlapping jurisdictions, nobody does anything,” Abel said.
But without those protections, workers in Missouri can fall through the cracks.
Arriving in the United States last year, H.V.D. — a Brazilian whose name was obscured in reports by investigators for his safety — had expected to be working as a housekeeper at hotels on the East Coast.
Instead, according to his affidavit filed in federal court, traffickers illegally shipped him to a St. Louis rail yard, where he loaded newly manufactured automobiles onto train cars.
“This job was very difficult because the metal ramps were very heavy and they sometimes fell,” the worker wrote.
Luck ran out on his fifth day on the job, when a rail car door almost severed a finger.
Missouri doctors recommended surgery. But that obviously presented a problem for the trafficking conspiracy. Viktar Krus, the conspiracy’s leader, had never obtained workers’ compensation insurance in Missouri.
After threatening to simply ship the worker back to Brazil, Krus ordered him to Virginia, where they lied to an insurance company, saying the accident occurred there and not in St. Louis.
Finally, five days after his accident, the worker had the operation. Later, he spoke with a lawyer contacted through the Brazilian consulate.
That only enraged Krus.
“He moved his hands across his neck and I understood he meant to threaten that he would kill me,” the Brazilian wrote. “I was afraid of Viktar, and I didn’t want to work for him anymore.”
An analysis filed by prosecutors argued the Brazilian clearly was a human trafficking victim:
•Krus denied medical attention unless the worker agreed to his conditions.
•Krus had threatened to send him back to Brazil if he didn’t comply with conditions of medical care.
•Krus exploited the worker’s dependency on him for food, housing, transportation and medical care.
Krus threatened the worker with physical harm if he sought assistance outside of the trafficker’s contact group.
During the ordeal, Gabor Teglasi — one of Krus’ managers — bumped into the worker and even mocked his injury.
“It was only a finger,” Teglasi said.