Guest-worker programs

Definition: Government-sponsored programs permitting the temporary importation of workers in specific occupations

Significance: Guest-worker programs in the United States, such as the mid-century bracero program, have often met with controversy due to variable labor conditions and their perceived effect on American wages and job availability.

Guest-worker programs import laborers from other countries into the United States for temporary employment. Early variants of such programs included indentured servitude during the colonial period, when European immigrant workers agreed to fixed terms of labor in exchange for transportation and other costs. The recruiting of Chinese railroad workers and other forms of contract labor during the mid-nineteenth century were also forms of indentured servitude; they were eventually outlawed by the Foran Act of 1885. Another form of indentured servitude was the nineteenth century Italian padrone system, which was facilitated by labor contractors with transatlantic ties. These early forms of indentured servitude did not always require that the laborers return to their home countries at the end of their terms of service, but many indentured laborers did.

The best-known guest-worker arrangement in the United States was the bracero program, which imported millions of Mexican agricultural laborers between 1942 and 1964. The imposition of this program required the repeal of the Foran Act, but growers’ associations successfully convinced the U.S. Congress that manpower shortages during World War II required new sources of farm labor. The program ended in 1964 amid increased scrutiny by labor regulators and in face of competition from the widespread mechanization of agricultural work.

During the early twenty-first century, President GeorgeW. Bush’s proposal to expand guest-worker programs met with significant criticism across the political spectrum. As late as 2009, the United States continued to maintain limited guest-worker programs for agricultural, low-skilled, and skilled labor, through the issuance of “H” type temporary work visas.

Sarah Bridger

Further Reading

  • Bustamante, Jorge, Clark Reynolds, and Raul Hinojosa Ojeda. U.S.-Mexico Relations: Labor Market Interdependence. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. 
  • Griffith, David. American Guestworkers: Jamaicans and Mexicans in the U.S. Labor Market. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 
  • Jordan, Don. White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America. New York: New York University Press, 2008. 
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. 

See also: Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885; Bracero program; Contract labor system; Economic consequences of immigration; Employment; Farmand migrant workers; Federation for American Immigration Reform; Indentured servitude; Mexican immigrants.

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