The German word is somehow more effective at conveying the ghastliness of the concept of guest workers, though the phrase in English is not without its chilly air of euphemistic frostiness. Guest workers, however, will not be staying at the Holiday Inn and they won’t likely be enjoying an exhilarating experiences at Six Flags Theme Parks; chances are they won’t even be “guests” at Target, buying designer lampshades and environmentally friendly lightbulbs. Instead, we will be hosting them at our chicken-plucking plants and our lettuce-picking fields, but heaven forbid they try to pass themselves off as real Americans — a real American wouldn’t be could doing such work at this point.
The main problem with a guest worker program is that it creates a permanent underclass with no particular investment in the host society (host society, because so many nativist ingrates see immigrant workers as parasites). This exacerbates tensions between newly arrived immigrants and natives, which has the effect of confirming the prejudices that led immigrants to be cordoned off in the first place. Denied an opportunity to integrate into society if they wanted to, immigrants are expected to accept second-class citizenship without any grudges, as if we are doing them a favor by letting them make the reduced labor costs in our companies’ business models more realistic, more workable.
In the most recent New Yorker, James Surowiecki tries to mount a defense for the recently proposed guest-worker program along these very lines. As illegals, they are second-class citizens anyway, so why not offer them limited rights, which are better than no rights at all.
Guest workers would no longer be tied to a single employer—within certain limits, they’d be able to change jobs if they wanted—and would be guaranteed all the protections that the law extends to native workers, including the freedom to join a union. These protections would not necessarily insure fair treatment, especially given the Bush Administration’s poor record of enforcing labor laws. But guest workers would have more rights than illegal workers, and be better treated. They’d also be paid better—better than they would as illegals, and far better than if they had to stay at home.
Never mind the thorny problem of deciding who the guests will be (and who will remain illegal). The problem is that the separate class created for guest workers makes it very likely that labor protections will be applied differently with regard to them. Otherwise what is the purpose of the subordinate classification. It seems that there should be no half measures when it comes to making provisions for the guarantee of rights to workers; at a certain level of abstraction, it becomes a matter of qualifying the level of a group’s humanity. This may be why immigration is an issue that brooks no compromise, since the logic behind the arguments on either side tend toward absolute, definitional premises. Either labor is permitted to move freely, as all economic factors should have free movement to allow for maximum efficiency, or national prerogatives trump all efficiency arguments and protecting the interests of nationals is more important than whatever suffering is taking place on the other side of the border. Otherwise what’s the point of being an American if it doesn’t guarantee you some inherent advantages?