Beyond the Laughs and Revelry at Carnivals, Migrant Workers Suffer

Beyond the jugglers, the clowns, the faces of delight on children as they win stuffed animals and bite into cotton candy is a darker side to carnivals – a side invisible and unheard.

Migrant workers brought on H-2B employment visas toil as many as 80 hours a week, sometimes for a flat rate of  $300, much less than the minimum rate, and far less than the promised wage, according to a new report by the Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant worker advocacy group in Maryland.

The 104-page report, “Taken for a Ride: Migrant Workers in the U.S. Fair and Carnival Industry,” said these migrant workers build and operate rides, set up games and serve food at concession stands. They travel with their employers around the country, and as a rule live in unsanitary and crowded quarters.

The report, which described findings after interviews with H-2B workers in Maryland, Virginia and Mexico, asserted that the migrants also endure limited healthcare, safety risks while doing their job, and a life of isolation.

“When workers complain about the low pay, or unsafe and unsanitary conditions, they face retaliation and threats of deportation or blacklisting,” said the report.

The authors of the report said they hoped that the exposé about the inhumane and abusive conditions that plague migrant workers in U.S. fairs and carnivals will lead to protection of such employees in any effort to reform the immigration system.

“Fixing the H-2B program would not only help foreign temporary workers,” the report said, “all workers in the U.S. benefit when the rights of a specific group of workers are enhanced and enforced.”

The document included accounts by migrant workers such as Samuel Rosales Rios, who came to the United States from Mexico as a temporary worker under the H-2B program.

Rios’ sponsor was the operator of a Greek food stand at a state fair. The Mexican native and his coworkers were forced to work about 17 hours a day with barely any days off, lived in overcrowded quarters and slept on beds that were infested with bed bugs and fleas, the report said.

Rios ended up in an emergency room, suffering from dehydration and bed bug bit infections.

“Samuel and his coworkers’ experiences are illustrative of the appalling work conditions H-2B workers in the fair and carnival industry often face,” the report said.

The report said that such workers remain vulnerable because their fate here is tied to that of the employer who sponsors them, and because they arrive with a pre-employment debt the authors characterized as “debilitating.”

Critics of the current U.S. guest worker laws often voice similar concerns about the inability of such foreign nationals to leave an abusive or exploitative employer, and the need to offer such workers more protection.

The AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday announced that they had reached an agreement on how to improve the guest worker program, and one of their recommendations included providing workers more protection.

Current efforts in Congress and the Obama administration to reform the immigration system are taking a look at the guest worker program to guard against exploitation while at the same time ensuring U.S. workers get preference when it comes to available jobs.