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Picking Crabs Over People: Dems Join GOP in Stifling H-2B Wages, Working Conditions

Leading crab cake enthusiast, Sen. Barbara Mikulski

When the story of dozens of Louisiana crawfish pickers being forced to work 24 hour shifts began to make the rounds online late last week, two things happened: 1) the labor and progressive communities were outraged 2) people had to Google “H-2B guest worker.”

See, the temporary foreign workers being threatened by C.J.’s Seafood (a Wal-Mart supplier) with shovels and deportation wound up on the Gulf Coast through a hard-to-monitor Department of Labor program that “allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs” when an employer can “demonstrate that there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.” The program is well-known for creating unsafe, low-wage jobs that are filled through devious hiring practices including misrepresentation of skills requirements and absurd application processeses:

For years, employers have rigged the H-2B recruitment process against U.S. workers. By misrepresenting the work hours or openings actually offered, or rejecting U.S. workers for other than lawful, job-related reasons, employers have often cut corners and skipped over U.S. job candidates so they can take on foreign guest workers for less pay. In one case, for example, a company tried to discourage applications by scheduling interviews for 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.

In fall 2010, undercover investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office actually captured recruiters advising employers on how to circumvent rules on worker recruitment to weed out U.S. workers. Similarly, DOL’s own recent audit discovered that almost half of H-2B employers that attested compliance with regulatory obligations were not, in fact, compliant.

So when Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of both the HELP (Health, Education Labor and Pension) Committee and the Appropriations Sub Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (LHHS), recently introduced much-needed and long-awaited reforms to the beleaguered H-2B program, it seemed on the surface like a no-brainer. After all, the U.S. government has been acting as a conduit for wage and safety violations since the program came to be in 1952 under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Alas, this is Washington in 2012 where something as obvious as hiring Americans in America means little to the front-runners in the race to rock bottom. As Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post reports, a group of Democrats joined Republicans in the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday in support of Rep. Richard Shelby’s amendment stripping the Harkin bill of H-2B reforms:

A Senate appropriations committee vote Thursday signaled that the Labor Department’s reforms may very well die, or at least be delayed a year. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) added an amendment to a labor appropriations bill that would prevent the Labor Department from moving ahead with its reforms. Although such reforms would normally have strong backing on the left — and have a much better chance in the Senate as opposed to the GOP-controlled House — several Democrats voted along with Republicans to successfully block them, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Both Maryland and Louisiana have significant seafood-processing industries that rely on H-2B workers.

Mikulski’s position is especially troubling. The fair-weather progressive remarked in committee about the lifecycle of a crab and implored the DOL to “understand the industry, the rhythms of the industry.” For Senator Mikulski, certain questions apparently do not arise, such as: What about the lifecycle of the American worker? What about other industries? What about American families being torn apart, one-time breadwinners committing suicide and children with serious health conditions going wholly untreated because their parents are losing jobs to unqualified foreign workers? No, these problems pale in comparison to the idea that “Maryland is seafood.” Senator, I beg your pardon, but Maryland is 5,828,289 people (as of July 2011), people you are actively dehumanizing through your words and actions.

Of course, this kind of me-first collusion is commonplace in these committees. Mikulski likely struck a deal with Shelby — who knows what unlikely bill Shelby will support on her behalf in the future — to move this atrocity of an amendment, blocking necessary wage and health standards and preventing the onus of propriety from being shifted to employers. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The new rules would require businesses hiring foreign workers, including seafood processors in Louisiana and elsewhere, to pay transportation costs, visa fees, and guarantee workers that they will be paid for three-quarters of their contracted work schedule. They also would require companies to advertise for U.S. workers — up to 21 days before the job begins — before being able to bring in foreign employees under the H-2B visa program.

The hiring practices are especially important in skilled trades, namely construction, where unions have been forced to take on the role of policing the out of control program. In 2010, former Building and Construction Trades Department (AFL-CIO) President Mark Ayers penned a piece explaining this tragedy of oversight:

Their modus operandi typically involves mis-advertising for lower-skill workers at the lowest level of wages (Levels 1 and 2 as defined by the H-2B program) when in actuality the jobs require much higher skill levels. By advertising for a lower class of skill, these employers are virtually guaranteeing that they won’t get a pool of “qualified” American workers. For example, they will advertise for a lower-skill “production welder” rather than a “construction welder” for a job in shipyard, knowing full well that any welder that works in a U.S. shipyard must pass a certification test.

The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) has done a remarkable job of exposing this travesty. They have had qualified union members apply for these lower wage jobs, and when the employer finds out who they are and examines their stellar qualifications, these applicants are simply never contacted. Over the last couple of years throughout the Gulf Coast, the UA has successfully stopped over 12,000 individual job placements from going forward because of such fraudulent advertising practices.

And this comes on the heels of another employer in the Gulf Coast who, in 2007, fraudulently submitted applications for 6,000 foreign H-2B visa workers to work on re-building the petrochemical industry in that region after the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when many American workers in that region were desperate for work. Of the 6,000 applications for welders, 3,000 were targeted for the Motiva Refinery, 1,500 for Valero, 1,000 for Total Petrochemical & 500 for ExxonMobil. The State Workforce Agency killed this application after complaints from local building trades unions in that area, along with newspaper stories and investigations. With so much fraud involved it is unfathomable that not one single person went to jail or was even charged for filing forged documents and falsified applications!

If that’s not enough, you could point to the example of late 2006, again along the Gulf Coast, where U.S. and Indian recruiters defrauded more than 500 Indian workers of $20,000 each for an American dream—promises of good work and green cards—but delivered to them instead temporary visas binding them to one employer, along with deplorable conditions at Signal International shipyards, and constant threats of deportation from the company.

Or, the example in Los Angeles, CA where it was discovered that Jacobs Engineering was seeking H-2B visas to import several hundred workers to fill skilled craft positions at a Los Angeles refinery. And in Florida, where the quick action on the part of our State Building and Construction Trades Council thwarted attempts by Blackhawk Marine to obtain H-2B visas for 400 foreign national workers in the Tampa area.

Who can blame the construction unions for taking the lead on exposing such a corrupt program? Unemployment in construction has soared above the national average, currently holding steady at 14%, and only dropped from above 20% in recent years due to a massive removal of workers from the labor force. To suggest that there is a shortage of U.S. construction workers ready and able to fill the jobs that these imported foreign workers are being tricked into taking is laughable. State unemployment figures in construction suggest any even more dire situation:

For the years January 2007 through January 2012, the following statistics apply:

• Four states — Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and New York — reached new lows in construction employment last month.
• Thirteen states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Texas, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — have reached new lows in construction employment in the last three months.
• Eighteen states have reached new lows in construction employment within the past six months.
• Twenty-nine states have reached new lows in construction employment in the past year.
• Ten states are within 1% of new lows in construction employment.
• Twenty-eight states are within 5% of new lows in construction employment.
• Forty-four states are within 10% of new lows in construction employment.
• Twenty-one states have fewer construction workers today than in 1990, 22 years ago.

And what about Alabama, Rep. Shelby’s home state? Well, the collapse of the construction sector has resulted in a whopping 35% decrease (!) in construction employment since 2007. 35%! The kicker? Eight other states (UT, CA, SC, ID, MI, AZ, FL, NV) show even worse drop-offs during the same period.

Newly-appointed Building and Construction Trades Department President Sean McGarvey addressed Shelby and his kind in a statement released late yesterday:

“The Shelby Amendment has effectively incentivized the importation of foreign workers into an already devastated U.S. construction industry,” said McGarvey. “He is simply rubbing salt into the wounds of American construction workers.”

The National Guestworker Alliance, which has helped expose the C.J.’s Seafood monstrosity, providing video testimonial from the harmed guest workers, joined in calling yesterday’s vote a “disgrace.” Beyond the hiring practices and forced subhuman working conditions is the question of wages, one of the main reforms Senator Harkin’s bill set out to implement. The following chart, from the DOL, shows the top 30 H-2B occupations and how their respective wages would improve if the H-2B wage rule were allowed to go into effect.  The Harkin bill would re-establish Davis Bacon wages as a standard in the construction industry for these jobs.

These numbers are remarkable. No industry would see less than a 19% wage increase under the new rule and fully one third of the top 30 H-2B occupations would see wage increases of 40%. These wages would then be in line not only with the skills needed to perform many of these jobs — skills that thousands of unemployed Americans have previously trained to be able to provide — but with the promise of a dignified working class life that so many Congressmen campaign on.

It must be noted that this LHHS committee has a Democratic majority. If the Democrats, alleged defenders of the vanishing Middle Class, voted along party lines yesterday it would have sent the Shelby amendment packing by a 16-14 margin. This vote was an absolute forfeiture by the party, one that represents the exact kind of anti-worker tendency that labor groups and human rights advocates have witnessed with disturbing regularity from so-called “progressives.”

There is no justification for it. Except the life cycle of a crab.


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