Bound for America

Article excerpt

THEY ARE NURSES. THEY ARE TEACHERS. THEY PICK YOUR APPLES. HOW IMMIGRATION LAW HAS SET LEGAL FOREIGN WORKERS UP FOR A NEW KIND OF INDENTURED SERVITUDEAND THIS TIME, THERE'S NO PAYING OFF YOUR CONTRACT.

IN THE SPRING OF 2004, Nikhom Intajak, a 35-year-old rice farmer in Thailand's Lampang province, met a labor recruiter who made him an attractive offer: a contract to do farm labor in the United States. He'd work for three years and earn the minimum wage of $7 to $ 10 an hour, depending on where he was deployed; best of all, he'd be a legal temporary worker, protected by American laws.

Intajak, who weighs 139 pounds and stands 5 feet 4 inches tall in a baseball cap, had worked overseas before, spending a total of about seven years in chemicals, electronics, and luggage plants in Taiwan. The money he'd sent home helped build a new house and pay school fees for two daughters. For each of his stints abroad, Intajak had paid a recruiting fee somewhat higher than the Thai legal maximum (currently about $2,000), and so he wasn't surprised when the new recruiter, Pochanee Sinchai, asked for one as well. He was, however, taken aback by the size of her demand: The job in America would cost him $ 1 1,700 up front.

Intajak's home, a hamlet called Banh Santicome, is poor, but not destitute. The climate is suitable for growing rice and produce, and earning opportunities range from farming garlic to foraging for mushrooms, bamboo, and wood. A formal job, if one can be found, might pay $2,000 a year. Three years of work in America at $7 an hour would come out to about $50,000. If one-fifth ofthat went to Sinchai, Intajak figured, then so be it. He asked his mother to put up her new house as collateral to borrow the money from a bank at 15 percent interest. Then he traveled to the Bangkok office of the recruiting firm that hired Sinchai, aaco International Recruitment, where he signed a number of documents, including several written in English, and also some blank pieces of paper.

Intajak (who asked me not to use his real name for fear of retribution) landed in Seattle on the Fourth of July. He was met by an employee of Global Horizons, the American company for which Sinchai and aaco had recruited him. According to Intajak, the man drove him and a vanload of new arrivals from Thailand to an isolated Yakima Valley apple grower named Green Acre Farms, where he confiscated their passports. Global Horizons agents stayed in the barracks and came to work in the orchards, Intajak says, to make sure the Thais didn't run away.

Intajak worked there for about three months. The pay, $8.53 per hour, was reasonable enough, he told me, but the work was so unsteady that he earned far less than he had been promised. Some days there might be eight hours of work, other days four-or none. After witnessing 30 or so coworkers get sent home after only a few months' work, Intajak began to realize that the contract he had signed back in Bangkok guaranteed nothing like three years of steady employment. Rather, he was eligible to work as many hours as Global saw fit to give him, for up to three years-as long as Global chose to renew his visa. If it didn't, if the work ran out, or if he did anything to displease his bosses, he'd have no way to pay off the $ 1 1,700 he'd borrowed. Ever.

LAST YEAR, some 60,000 workers arrived in the US under the federal H-2A guestworker program, which allows agribusinesses to bring in foreign labor for jobs they say are hard to fill at minimum wage. Similar temp-worker programs in industries like seafood processing, tree planting, and hotel maintenance brought in an additional 59,000 workers, and 60,000 more came in through temporary programs for professionals in fields deemed to have labor shortages-teachers, nurses, computer programmers.

These men and women are bound to the companies that requested them. They remain on American soil at the pleasure of their employers, who can send them home at any time. …