New Guest Worker Rules Resurrect Old Debates – Houma Courier – 2/13/12

New guest worker rules resurrect old debates

By Cara Bayles

New federal rules governing treatment of immigrant workers are drawing mixed reactions initially as labor and business officials try to determine the full impact.

The U.S. Department of Labor has announced regulation changes to the H-2B guest-worker visa program for non-agricultural workers who immigrate to the U.S. for seasonal work.

Labor advocates applaud the document, saying it will protect a marginalized immigrant workforce. But many industries, including local seafood processors, are wary of the rules after fighting an ongoing battle over wage hikes.

The provisions include mandates that would create a federal database that would allow American job seekers to search for work that would otherwise go to guest workers. Prior to the rule, the database only existed on a state level.

The rules, released Friday and poised to take effect April 23, also:

-Add language protecting immigrant laborers from intimidation or threats as a response to worker complaints or union organizing activities.

-Prohibit employers from deducting relocation costs from immigrant employees’ paychecks.

-Prevent recruiters from charging foreign workers a fee for job placement.

The 575-page document “clarifies and makes sure that American workers get access to the jobs first,” said Joshua Lamont, a U.S. Labor Department spokesman.

The changes came out of a regular revision process, which involves “stakeholder meetings with employers and workers’ advocates alike,” he said.

Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the National Guestworker Alliance in New Orleans, said that the changes would protect all workers’ rights by preventing the visa program from being a “race to the bottom.”

“It takes away incentives for employers to pass over American workers to employ more easily exploited guest workers,” Horwitz said.

In Louisiana alone, the organization has more than five open Department of Labor complaints against employers in the seafood industry, he said.

“These rules prohibit retaliation against other workers who are exercising their rights,” Horwitz said. “That the Labor Department is taking this proactive stance is an enormous victory for guest workers and American workers across the country.”

But Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods, a Houma oyster-processing company, said he fills vacancies that are undesirable to American workers by hiring immigrants.

“The more rules and regulations that are put on us, the more challenging it will be to have a product that is reasonably priced and can compete with foreign imports,” he said.

The regulations have rekindled old disputes that were sparked by a proposed wage-rule change last year for the visa program. It would have increased the minimum hourly pay for visa workers by 50 percent.

Business interests said that would mean employers who elect to use the H-2B program would have to increase all the wages in those fields, since they cannot pay immigrant laborers more or less than their American counterparts.

Local employers said they would rather fill the jobs with American workers, but much of the work, like shucking oysters and operating boilers at sugar mills, is undesirable to Americans. They also said that the cost of increasing wages would put them out of business.

Court battles have delayed the proposed pay increase.

But Horowitz said the regulations issued Friday would provide some financial relief for immigrant workers.

“By undercutting recruitment fees and mandating that relocation costs are paid by employers, that is in a sense a wage increase because those were deducted from people’s wages,” he said.

The Save America’s Seafood Industry group, a coalition of 30 seafood processors, was born out of last year’s debate. A spokesman said the group will likely fight the new rules.

“This is not the only problem we’re facing, but it’s a big one,” Brent Gilroy said. “We’re not seeing anything hugely positive here, but we still need some time to go through it.”

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