January 29, 2016
Shortly after Congress approved a quadrupling in the H-2B nonfarm worker visa as part of its massive $1.1 trillion year-end federal spending bill, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute found that no labor shortage exists which requires importing more seasonal, low-skilled workers.
Hidden in the huge Omnibus bill was a provision to allow for an expansion in the H-2B visa category from 66,000 to 264,000. House Speaker Paul Ryan insists that businesses would face significant labor shortages without the increase. Ryan spouted the standard, age-old Chamber of Commerce defense to validate importing more workers in landscaping, forestry or hospitality. Lobbyists, with Ryan’s whole-hearted endorsement, have argued for years that cutting grass, planting trees or packing seafood are jobs Americans won’t do.
Despite their insistence, however, lobbyists have never presented a single credible case to prove their labor shortage claim, a hurdle they’ve overcome by spending millions on campaign contributions. For the corporations, the money spent is well worth it. The H-2B employees they’ll eventually hire will be indentured, low-paid servants with few rights. Terms of the H-2B forbid workers from switching employers even if they’re underpaid or subjected to unsafe conditions. Since the visa is issued in the company’s name, a fired H-2B worker is instantly deportable.
In addition to the huge increase in the H-2B visa cap, the omnibus bill included riders that remove protections to keep workers from being laid off for long periods without pay and also eliminates enforcement rules which require employers to recruit workers already present in the United States before they hire an H-2B worker.
Most egregiously, the new law dramatically lowers the mandatory minimum wages employers are required to pay. Unscrupulous companies can hire H-2B workers for much less than Americans employed locally in similar jobs. Lower H-2B wages incentivizes hiring foreign-born workers.
EPI analyzed the top 15 H-2B occupations in fiscal year 2014, along with the number of H-2B jobs the U.S. Department of Labor certified in each occupation. When compared against the 2004 data, EPI found no significant worker wage growth in the most popular H-2B occupations. In fact, wages were stagnant or declined during the period. But Economics 101: if there were a domestic demand for these workers, it would be reflected in higher salaries. Prices rise when demand exceeds supply. Sustained flat or decreasing wages coupled with high unemployment are proof of a loose labor market, an oversupply rather than a shortage of workers.
An online news magazine, Buzz Feed, recently published its H-2B investigative story titled, “The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare.” Based on government documents they obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and 80 interviews with employers and workers, reporters uncovered widespread H-2B abuse that included withheld wages, physical threats and sexual harassment, all made under the threat of deportation. The Buzz Feed story is one readers will likely never see in the mainstream media.