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Gender discrimination and harassment plagues U.S. temporary work programs

Written by John Winer

April 26, 2021

Each year, thousands of women are recruited to work in the United States on temporary work visas. The Department of Labor explains that foreign labor certification programs permit U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary or permanent basis to fill jobs essential to the U.S. economy. Although it allows them to work towards pursuing a better life, it comes at a cost. Women’s stories describe how gender bias and discrimination deeply plague the temporary labor migration programs, which facilitate women’s exclusion from equal employment opportunities and foster gender-based discrimination in the workplace. A recently filed lawsuit by a group of migrant workers is highlighting the issues they are encountering in the temporary work programs.

Reuters reported that a group of Mexican women migrants filed a complaint, accusing the U.S. government of violating a trade agreement by failing to enforce gender discrimination laws in temporary labor programs. The complaint accuses the U.S. of violating the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) by failing to enforce sex-based discrimination laws in its H-2 visa programs for temporary seasonal workers. In the lawsuit, the women said they were denied access to visas that would give them better-paying jobs and that they were exposed to gender-based violence. The executive director of the Center for Migrant Rights claimed this was the first such complaint filed under the USMCA, which went into effect in July 2020. The USMCA included a new article in its new version that forces officials to act against discrimination and supports the objective of promoting equality for women in the workplace, among other points against labor inequality. It will now be up to Mexico’s Labor Ministry to consider whether to investigate the women’s complaint and take it to the U.S. government.

The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women reports that women migrant workers experience a continuum of gender-based violence and harassment, ranging from insults to severe physical abuse, sexual assault, psychological abuse, bullying, and intimidation. And those who choose to stand up to their abusers often face retaliation and harassment. Women have described how employers and their recruiter agents frequently shut women out of equal employment opportunities or track them into jobs with less pay and fewer rights and benefits. In their worksites, they recount exploitation and abuse, ranging from wage theft to sexual harassment to human trafficking.

The Center for Migrant Rights has provided legal representation to workers from Mexico recruited for jobs in the U.S. through diverse visa programs for more than a decade and have worked with those that have been discriminated against and harassed. In 2014, the organization launched a platform for migrant workers to safely share their experiences with specific employers and recruiters and access know-your-rights information for the most common temporary labor programs. Many women have reached out about the discrimination they have encountered at all stages of the temporary labor migration programs, vocalizing the unique needs and challenges women face when seeking access to the programs.

Persistent gender bias, lack of government oversight over recruitment, and the failure of the United States to enforce anti-discrimination, harassment, and other labor and employment laws have all contributed to the gender discrimination and sexual harassment women in temporary work programs endure. Ending the abuse of women migrant workers will require consistent monitoring and meaningful enforcement.

One way the Center for Migrant Rights recommends addressing the issue is by having Congress mandate that the Department of State, Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission create an integrated response to the issue of migrant worker abuse. They should monitor the practices of employers and recruiters to guard against discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in the workplace, as well as ensure that women are provided adequate protection and are granted access to social and other support services to facilitate reporting gender-based violence and other trauma.

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