Commentary | Wages Incomes and Wealth

Labor’s ‘guests’ are anything but

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[ THIS OP-ED ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN NEWSDAY ON MAY 9, 2008.]

Labor’s ‘guests’ are anything but

By Ross Eisenbrey

Unemployment is rising, hundreds of thousands of families are facing foreclosures on their homes, and wages are flat-lining (especially for workers without college degrees). Yet a noisy group of Long Island businesses claims the nation needs … more workers willing to accept low wages and less likely to organize or otherwise assert their rights.

The businesses, part of a national coalition with well-connected lobbyists, are badgering Congress to allow more indentured workers into the United States. Not surprisingly, given that low-wage workers have no lobbyists of their own, many members of the U.S. House and Senate – including Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) – are listening attentively and getting ready to give these low-wage employers just what they want.

These special-interest lobbyists have been all over Capitol Hill demanding that Congress allow tens of thousands of additional guest workers into the country as dishwashers, hotel maids, crab pickers, landscape laborers and workers in other low-wage jobs. That would be bad news for the region’s and the nation’s low-wage workers, whether immigrant or native-born.

Current law permits a maximum of 66,000 foreign nationals to enter this country each year under a special visa program known as H-2B, if employers fail to find qualified U.S. workers. But employers are required to advertise for workers for only three days. If you’re skeptical that dishwashers and landscape workers are so hard to find in a sinking economy, you’re right. But because the law allows the businesses to advertise so briefly – and four months before the jobs become vacant – more employers each year somehow manage not to find anyone to do the work. That’s because the whole process is designed to obscure this simple fact There isn’t a shortage of workers willing to do these jobs. There’s a shortage of employers willing to pay a decent wage.

Ten years ago, only 20,000 H-2B visas were issued. In 2007, 130,000 were issued, even though more than 7 million Americans were unemployed and millions more had part-time jobs but wanted full-time work. Why are so many more businesses turning to foreign workers? Because the U.S. government lets them pay poverty-level wages.

Almost all H-2B employers pay less than a living wage, including most of the New York landscape businesses that use these visas. Some of the worst abusers are in the toniest areas. Out of 49 landscape businesses in the Hamptons certified to import guest workers last year, all but two paid less than $8.40 an hour. Yet the average wage for landscape laborers statewide was $12.56 in 2006.

Despite the loss of 260,000 jobs in the first four months of this year, more than 150 House members, including Rep. Bishop, have signed on to legislation to lift the 66,000 visa cap and allow all the foreign workers who used H-2B visas in the past three years to enter, in addition to the current 66,000, for a potential total of more than 200,000 visas in all.

But the obvious questions aren’t being asked These businesses managed to succeed until 2003 without needing even 66,000 H-2Bs. So what changed, except that the number of Americans seeking jobs has increased? Why is the cap on visas a crisis now, when it wasn’t in 2000, when unemployment was under 4 percent?

And what will happen if the cap remains at 66,000?

The last question is being answered already. Lawn and Landscape magazine reports that employers are (grudgingly) beginning to raise wages to attract more U.S. workers. Nationally, the average landscape worker without a college education earns only $10.67 an hour – less than in 2000, after adjusting for inflation. The unemployment rate among such laborers is above 9 percent – also worse than in 2000. So there’s plenty of room to raise wages, and plenty of unemployed U.S. workers to do the work.

The problem isn’t limited to landscapers. The Economic Policy Institute examined wages and unemployment in the seven occupations with the most H-2B workers, which include hotel and restaurant workers.

In these occupations, unemployment was higher and had risen faster since 2000 than the national average, while wages were lower and had risen more slowly than the national average.

The obvious answer to Long Island’s so-called labor shortage is to offer local workers a decent wage. The answer is not to pay poverty-level wages and look overseas for workers willing to accept them.

Businessmen usually claim to love the magic of the marketplace. Congress should let the labor market work its wonders and get hard-working, low-paid Americans of every background the raises they need and deserve.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

[POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON JULY 31, 2008.]


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