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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Twenty First Century Slave Zoid Man (Guest Workers and the Thirteenth Amendment) 

Needless to say, the Bush "guest worker" program has become very controversial - at least in the border states, although there is talk all over about it. (See this Denver Post article for an example.) For the moment I'm going to ignore the question of whether this is, or is not, amnesty, and look at the workings of the guest worker program itself. There are a lot of allegations that the Bush guest worker program amounts to slavery. Is it truly slavery? If not technically slavery, is it something very close to slavery? If so, it's very ironic, since the Republican Party was founded on the eradication of slavery - is the 21st century Republican Party trying to reinstate it?

First, let's see what people are saying.

From indybay.org (emphasis mine):

Timeline of the Bracero Struggle Legalized Slavery

1942: During World War II U.S. labor supply is low; therefore the United States government and the Mexico Government establish the Bracero Program.

1945: Japan's surrenders-ending the war. However the Bracero Program continues.

1964: Bracero Program officially ends.

1998: The group Alianza Braceroproa is formed to fight for the dignity and money robbed from them by the Mexican and U.S. government.

2004: President Bush announces plans for a guest worker program between Mexico and the United States (a new bracero program).

2005: Alianza Braceropro joins forces with Zapatistas and La Otra Campaña

From FudgyBear:

Guest worker plans in the past have not worked at all well. There were all sorts of abuses by the employers, that were tantamount to slavery.

Uncle Tim (sitting in his cabin?) says (emphasis his):

If this passes, then it will be official:

Slavery will once again become legal in the United States.

From Jaundice James (emphasis mine):

Is it within our American value system to invite people from a different country to come work for less than we’d pay our own people, without allowing them even the most basic government services?

If a company can afford to open a new store once a month, should they, instead, be providing minimum-wage jobs to poverty-stricken Americans, or even our own teenagers as summer jobs?

If their CEOs and stockholders are doing well, should we still expect that labor cost to be passed on to the consumer?

Should we be treating people as a commodity?

Do we want an Official Second Class Citizenship in this country?

I know this is different than slavery - I don’t mean to trivialize a shameful chapter in our nation’s history - but given the unique relationship these immigrants will have with their employers, since they will be required to be employed, and the fact that they won’t have any of the rights and benefits of citizenship, will it be different ENOUGH?

From Nothing But Love (emphasis mine):

As Bush the Lesser pointed out, "a new temporary worker program ... will match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs. This program will offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States, and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here." Why not bring a few shiploads of potential workers from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, or Zimbabwe, who would work for much less than those from Mexico. And there could be large communes built at or near work sites where these "immigrants" could live at low cost, serving those employers who offered jobs.

This type of arrangement sounds suspiciously like the slave trade that brought cheap labor to our shores for many centuries. And it sounds suspiciously like the French Muslim housing situation of today which has resulted in the extreme segregation of those peoples and the recent nightly rioting. As is the rule with citizenship in the U.S., France bestows citizenship upon those born on French soil. Why will the result be any different in this country?

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution

Is a guest worker program truly slavery? If so, then the 13th Amendment to the Constitution comes into play.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Here's what Nothing But Love says about that:

I'm no expert, mind you, but it is my opinion that the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in this country....[S]ince the Constitution is being ignored anyway in other important respects by our present government, abridging our personal freedoms, what difference does ignoring this little Constitutional prohibition make in the scheme of things. It is consistent with the view of the rule of law taken by the Bush Administration.

Of course, the neo-conservatives will argue that this is in no way slavery or involuntary servitude, since the guest workers willingly sign up for the program and since it's so much better than what they would get back home.

Peonage and Limited Rights

Nothing But Love is not an expert. Well, let's consult an expert. Here's a quote from some judicial whatsit on the subject:

An early Supreme Court decision, rejecting a contention that the Amendment reached servitudes on property as it did on persons, observed in dicta that the ``word servitude is of larger meaning than slavery, . . . and the obvious purpose was to forbid all shades and conditions of African slavery.'' But while the Court was initially in doubt whether persons other than African Americans could share in the protection afforded by the Amendment, it did continue to say that although ``[N]egro slavery alone was in the mind of the Congress which proposed the thirteenth article, it forbids any other kind of slavery, now or hereafter. If Mexican peonage or the Chinese coolie labor system shall develop slavery of the Mexican or Chinese race within our territory, this amendment may safely be trusted to make it void.''\7
\7\Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 69, 71-72 (1873). This general applicability was again stated in Hodges v. United States, 203 U.S. 1, 16-17 (1906), and confirmed by the result of the peonage cases. Infra. p.1555.

Peonage? What's that?

One of the most striking features of the economy of the South in the early 20th century was the extent to which its farms, plantations, mines, and mills availed themselves of a system of forced labor known as "peonage." This system developed from the practice of holding laborers in debt and forcing them to remain on the premises of their creditors to work off the debt. Peon laborers were thus bound to their masters’ firms or plantations, often by means of violence and intimidation.

Here's what the American Friends Service Committee says about previous bracero/guest worker programs:

Whether they are undocumented, legally documented, or temporary contract workers, farm workers face a host of problems. Most farm workers are excluded from minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and protections for union organizing. Substandard housing, lack of sanitary facilities or even clean drinking water in the fields, and pesticide exposure are among the many issues they confront. Existing immigration law prevents many farm workers from living with their families and forming settled communities. Each of these problems has been the focus of a long tradition of organizing, dating back more than fifty years.

It's fair to assume that at least some of these limitations will still prevail. And if the hiring corporations can't provide benefits for U.S. citizens (you know, the ones who are not willing to do the work), why would anyone think that they'd provide such benefits for guest workers?

The Basic Coercion

Regardless of all of this, let's assume for the moment that I'm wrong and that the companies that hire guest workers are entirely altruistic and would not take advantage of them and will give them free health care just like the grocery workers used to have. The guest workers wouldn't be forced to live in company towns, they wouldn't be tricked into indebtedness, and they could leave their job at any time...at which point their participation in the guest worker program would presumably end, and they'd have to go back home. (I mean, you can't be a guest worker if you're not working...or can you?)

Well, you know the old saying - if it looks like green peppers, and if it smells like green peppers, and if it tastes like green peppers...well, I wouldn't want to eat it.

P.S. I was also going to talk about Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, but this is long enough.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

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