(Adds comment from U.S. State Department)
By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Foreigners with temporary work visas in the United States are falling victim to human trafficking as recruiters and employers exploit flaws in a system that includes several government agencies, an advocacy group said.
Guest workers are often tied to one employer and can be deported if they change jobs or quit, making them vulnerable to traffickers who exploit their uncertain status, said the Washington-based non-profit Polaris.
The total number of foreign workers is unknown since several U.S. government agencies issue visas, said Polaris. The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, estimated in 2013 that there were 1.42 million temporary foreign workers.
Through calls to its National Human Trafficking Hotline, Polaris found about 800 workers with temporary work visas who were trafficked from 2015 to 2017, the group said in a report published on Tuesday.
“The individuals whose cases were reported likely represent only a very small fraction of the number of actual victims,” said Polaris. “Regardless, even the number that we know about is shocking and unacceptable.”
Most victims worked in agriculture and had their earnings confiscated or were trapped paying off debts for recruitment fees or transport, the report said.
Globally, some 25 million people are believed to be victims of labor or sex trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization and other leading groups.
The U.S. Departments of State, Labor and Homeland Security issue the most visas.
The Department of State said certain instances exist when visa-holders may change employers and said it informs workers of resources such as Polaris’ hotline for reporting abuse.
“The U.S. government is committed to fighting human trafficking and labor abuses in all their forms,” a State Department spokeswoman told the Foundation in an email.
Representatives of the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris, said visa rules should be changed to allow workers to switch jobs, rather than being tied to one employer.
“That would create a very different labor market than a market where certain workers are tied to certain employers like a horse tied to a fence post,” Myles told reporters on a conference call.
The findings are consistent with complaints made to the Equal Justice Center, a Texas-based non-profit legal group that advocates for workers and immigrants, said attorney Christopher Willett.
“They are vulnerable to wage theft, harsh working conditions and threats of deportation and other forms of retaliation if they complain,” Willett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Polaris said low-skilled laborers are most vulnerable.
Most victims it found were men working on farms producing tobacco, fruits and vegetables. More than half came from Mexico, and many others from the Philippines.
“Bad actors can easily game the system in order to fill jobs with foreign-born temporary workers who will do the work for far less money and in less desirable working conditions than American-born workers,” the report said.
Polaris proposed a number of measures, some of which are pending before the U.S. Congress, including banning recruitment fees, better oversight of recruiters and employers, and giving workers more control in seeking jobs and changing employers. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Jared Ferrie