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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 15, 2012, 5:24 pm

Senate Democrats Block Funding for Guest Worker Protection Rule

BY Mike Elk

On June 14, five Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee joined 14 Republicans to help pass an amendment sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) that would block funding for the enforcement of a new H-2B guest workers protection rule issued by the Obama administration. Approximately 115,000 guest workers are working in the United States on H-2B guest worker visas. The program allows companies to bring in workers into the United States to work when they claim that they cannot find American workers to do the job.

However, workers’ rights advocates claim the program is often abused by companies to hire workers in industries like construction. Currently, 14.2% of construction workers are unemployed. A recent Department of Labor internal audit found that nearly half of all companies using H-2B guest workers are not in compliance with federal laws about their usage.

Labor advocates claim that the H-2B visas programs are often used to pay workers lower wages. One study by the Econoic Policy Institute found that workers on H-2B visa in the seafood industry make on average $10,000 a year less than American workers in the seafood industry.

What's more, H-2B workers employed in low-wage industries are often forced to work in illegal and unsafe conditions because workers are afraid to speak up out of fear of being deported. Recently, it was discovered that a Wal-Mart supplier in Louisiana was forcing H-2B guest workers in the seafood industry to work up to 24 hours a day.

Last year, the Department of Labor attempted to issue rules curbing the abuses in the H-2B visa program. The new rules would make companies meet a higher threshold before allowing them to hire H-2B guest workers over American workers. The rules would also ensure that H-2B guest workers receive the prevailing wage of workers in their industries and offer additional protection for guest workers to speak out against violations of labor law.

“I think what’s really disappointing is that people tend to view this issue in how H-2B workers are treated in the United States. The key effect of the regulation is to make more of these jobs available to U.S. workers,” says Michael Dale of the Northwest Workers Justice Project “Why these senators would vote against this in an economy with such a high level of unemployment to U.S. workers is beyond me”.

“Sen Richard Shelby sells out American Construction Workers in Favor of Foreign Imports. Disgraceful!!!,” tweeted out AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trade’s Department President Sean McGarvey. “And not only Shelby, Dem Senators Milkulski, Kohl, Pryor, Landrieu, Nelson (NE) sold out US construction workers. Where['s] the shame?“

Workplace advocates specifically called out Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) for voting against the H-2B guest worker protections, as it was her home state where H-2B visa workers were being forced to work up to 24 hours a day.

“We’re particularly disappointed at Sen. Mary Landrieu’s vote to defund the new rules, since Louisiana has a high proportion of guestworkers and many documented cases of employer abuse,” said Saket Soni of the National Guest Workers Alliance. “Sen. Landrieu should sit down with guestworkers in her own state to understand why the new H-2B rules are so vital—for guestworkers and U.S. workers alike”.

Landrieu said she objected to the rules because they "do not work for states with seafood industries that are family owned like those in Louisiana, Maryland and Alabama."

"During the last few months, I've tried again and again to work through my concerns with the Department of Labor to no avail, which is why I voted to block both sets of rules today," said Landrieu. "However, I'm committed to working with members on both sides of the aisle to root out abuses in the program and find ways to protect workers who come forward with verified allegations of abuse."

While Landrieu, who is running for re-election in two years in a Republican-leaning state, may have an excuse in voting against the rules, members of organized labor were particularly angry at the vote of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Mary.), who comes from a strongly Democratic state.

"This is a really tough issue," said Mikulski. "Maryland is seafood, but the seafood industry has changed over the years. We want [the Labor Department] to understand the industry, the rhythms of the industry. I'm going to support Senator Shelby."

There had been rumors that unions in Maryland might withhold financial support from Mikulski because of her vote. However, when reached for comment about the H-2B visa vote, Maryland AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Donna Edwards said she did not know enough about the issue to even comment on it. For now, it appears another Democrat in a safely Democratic state will face no consequences for voting against the interests of workers.

“It really is a raw deal for everyone except corporate America,” says immigration expert Daniel Costa of the Economic Policy Institute.  “In the face of Republican determination to kill the rule, five Democratic Senators could have saved the H-2B rule if they would have voted against the amendment. Unfortunately, Senators Landrieu, Mikulski, Nelson, Pryor, and Kohl voted to make sure that employers have easy access to an underpaid, vulnerable and exploitable workforce from abroad, instead of voting to put back to work the people that have been hit the hardest by the recession. I realize that immigrant guest workers aren’t their constituents, but there are a lot of unemployed Americans that are, and the H-2B rules would have benefitted them the most”.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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