Building Trades Unions Urge Trump to Fix Low-Skill Visa Program

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By Elliott T. Dube

North America’s Building Trades Unions urged President Donald Trump to go beyond the scope of his recent “Buy American and Hire American” executive order in tackling concerns over U.S. guestworker programs.

The order explicitly deals with the H-1B highly skilled guestworker program. It directs federal agencies to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”

In response to that order, NABTU said the building trades unions look forward to working with Trump and Congress to “further the effort to ‘hire American’ by cracking down on the unrestrained abuse of other federal visa programs, specifically” the H-2B low-skilled guestworker program.

“From our perspective, we need to fix these programs,” Sonia Ramirez, NABTU’s government affairs director, told Bloomberg BNA. “We need to ensure that they are limited in size and scope and that they provide equal labor protections for foreign workers so they can enter seamlessly into the workforce, without creating an interest for unscrupulous employers to seek them out so that they can lower their labor costs.”

Recruitment, Labor Protections Under Scrutiny

There are two “injury points” in terms of NABTU’s concerns with the H-2B program, Ramirez said. First, employers that apply for H-2B guestworkers should go through a “rigorous recruitment process” to ensure that there aren’t available U.S. workers to fill those jobs, she said.

Second, guestworkers must receive the same labor protections as native-born workers do so that the government isn’t “undermining the labor market by providing access to an exploitable pool of labor, hence having negative impacts and downward pressure on workplace wages and standards,” Ramirez said.

In addition, there is no “real stringent enforcement mechanism” for ensuring that the classification of work contemplated when guestworkers are requested actually matches the work that they do once they arrive in the U.S., Ramirez said.

But other stakeholders argue that such criticism of the H-2B program is overblown.

Employers undergo “extensive” recruitment of U.S. workers—sometimes beyond what the law requires—before turning to the H-2B guestworker option, Laurie Flanagan, co-chair of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, told Bloomberg BNA. She represents the National Association of Landscape Professionals and national horticulture industry group AmericanHort, in the coalition.

Many temporary jobs at issue involve either seasonal or geographical circumstances that limit the number of U.S. workers available to fill them, Flanagan said. If employers “could find American workers to hire, they absolutely would,” she said.

There are specific requirements in the law to ensure that guestworkers are treated well, Flanagan added.

“Many return to the same employer year after year because it’s a great opportunity for those workers to provide for their families in their home countries,” she said. “Their salaries are set; the wages that are prescribed by the Department of Labor are often well above the minimum wage.”

But H-2B wage rules are set up in a way that allows employers to pay guestworkers “much lower” than state or national average wages, Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research for the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 25 email.

In practice, employers also have been able to use loopholes to avoid recruiting U.S. workers before seeking guestworkers, Costa said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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