Commentary

Feds should act quickly to save and improve foreign guest worker program

The H-2B visa program – a program which allows employers to hire foreign workers, mostly from Mexico, to fill seasonal and temporary unskilled jobs in the U.S. — has been in the news lately because a recent federal court decision resulted in a temporary shut-down of the program by the federal Department of Labor (USDOL). Both the migrant workers who fill these jobs and the businesses who regularly use the H-2B program have, understandably, been concerned about the shut-down.

Last year, North Carolina was one of the top 10 states to use H-2B labor with 2,834 positions certified by USDOL. Landscaping is by far the top industry to rely on H-2B labor, but H-2B workers are also very common in North Carolina’s hospitality (as housekeepers) and seafood industries.

As of Wednesday of this week, however, USDOL has been allowed to resume processing H-2B labor certification applications until April 15th. After that, the program will again be at a standstill until USDOL and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issue new joint regulations for the program, which they have promised to do by April 30th.

Let’s hope the Obama administration makes use of this new rule-making as an opportunity to address the myriad problems identified in a new Government Accounting Office report  entitled “Increased Protections Needed for Foreign Workers.”  The GAO report found that H-2B workers are regularly subjected to abuses during recruitment, such as being charged exorbitant fees and not being provided accurate information about the job to which they are being recruited.

Sadly, mistreatment of H-2B workers frequently continues once they arrive in the U.S. to start work, as is described in “Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles of Migrant Worker Women in the Maryland Crab Industry.” According to that report, women migrants are regularly subjected to deplorable working and living conditions, discrimination and harassment and often live in fear of their employers.

USDOL published new rules for the H-2B program in 2012 with strong worker protections which would have addressed many of these problems, but unfortunately, those rules never took effect. USDOL and DHS should now use the 2012 rule as a model to quickly issue new rules which keep the program running and improve the program by including important and needed worker protections. Stay tuned.

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