Commentary

Temporary guestworker jobs are bad for workers, bad for NC

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute compares the economic outcomes of three groups of Mexican immigrants working in the U.S.: legal permanent residents (LPRs), unauthorized workers, and H-2A and H-2B temporary visa workers. There are two federal visas that allow employers to import unskilled, foreign workers on a temporary basis: the H-2A visa for agricultural workers and the H-2B visa for other unskilled labor, such as seafood processing, landscaping and housekeeping. The report, “Authorized Workers, Limited Returns: The Labor Market Outcomes of Temporary Mexican Workers,” finds that although H-2A and H-2B workers are lawfully present, their legal status does not give them an advantage over unauthorized workers. Both groups are paid very low wages and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse on the job. The author concludes:

“The results of these analyses point toward the need for reforming U.S. temporary foreign worker programs. If temporary foreign worker programs are to be a viable alternative to unauthorized immigration, temporary work visas must appeal to potential unauthorized immigrants and must reduce the risk of abuse that workers in these programs encounter. Currently, visa restrictions tying temporary foreign workers to a single employer undermine the economic opportunities available to these workers.”

Changing the H-2 visas so that employees could freely move from one employer to another would greatly increase their bargaining power and ultimately improve wages and working conditions, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem likely to happen. A new comprehensive rule for the H-2B program published by the Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adds critical worker protections, but there is no mention of visa portability. Nor is there any indication from DOL that it intends to modify the H-2A visa any time soon.

Temporary visa jobs are not good jobs, which is bad news for North Carolina.  As has been said many times before on this blog (examples here, here and here), North Carolina needs good jobs to improve our economy, but many North Carolina employers rely on both of these federal visa programs as a legal source of cheap labor.

According to DOL disclosure data, over 10,000 visas have been approved for North Carolina employers in 2015 and over 17,000 were approved last year. So far for FY 2015, North Carolina employers have applied for more H-2A visas than any other state except for Florida, and many of the H-2A visas that are counted for Florida are issued to farm labor contractors who bring H-2A workers to North Carolina once the work is over in Florida. Plus, the largest single employer of H-2A workers in the country is the North Carolina Growers Association. North Carolina is also consistently among the top 10 states for H-2B visas. H-2B workers operate carnival rides at county fairs throughout the state, pick crabs and shuck oysters down east, clean hotels in the outer banks, and keep our golf courses looking good.

As long as these jobs continue to go to foreign visa workers rather than to North Carolinians with a little more bargaining power, they will continue to have a depressive effect on the overall health of our economy.

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