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News from EPI The H-2B visa guestworker program leaves workers vulnerable to low pay and abuse

In Frequently asked questions about the H-2B temporary foreign worker program, EPI Director of Immigration Research Daniel Costa, explains that many employers use the H-2B guestworker program to keep wages low for Americans and migrant workers, and also want to expand the program and strip the Department of Labor of enforcement authority. Employers can temporarily bring foreign workers to the United States through the H-2B visa program to perform low-wage work such as landscaping, forestry, housekeeping, and construction. Because the temporary visas used in the program are sponsored by employers, H-2B guestworkers cannot switch jobs if they are exploited or robbed of wages, and these workers often toil for low wages in poor conditions.

In late 2015, the H-2B visa program was effectively doubled in size through a provision called the “returning worker exemption” introduced during the appropriations process. Costa writes that it is important that the recent expansion of this exploitative program not be continued in fiscal year 2017 and beyond—and that Congress allow regulations providing rights and higher wages to both guestworkers and U.S. workers to be fully implemented. At present, the 2015 appropriations provisions prevent the Labor Department from enforcing the law against bad-actor employers and allow H-2B employers to vastly underpay their guestworkers.

The H-2B visa issue has surfaced in the presidential campaign after reports from CBS Miami, Reuters, BuzzFeed News, and the New York Times revealed that presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s companies have relied heavily on H-2B migrant workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort and golf clubs. Trump’s companies “requested hundreds of [H-2B] visas in recent years claiming they were unable to find Americans willing to do even the most basic tasks,” even though there’s ample evidence that local workers were available. At Mar-a-Lago, more than 500 visas were applied for since 2010, while “nearly 300 United States residents have applied or been referred for jobs as waiters, waitresses, cooks and housekeepers there. But according to federal records, only 17 have been hired.” Trump’s response to the New York Times about this was, “The only reason [the job applicants] wouldn’t get a callback is that they weren’t qualified, for some reason. There are very few qualified people during the high season in the area.” But that strains credulity, as explained in the EPI FAQ on H-2B visas, because H-2B jobs are almost all unskilled and require little to no training or experience.

EPI’s Daniel Costa is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration on June 8, 2016 on the impact of the program on the wages and working conditions of Americans and migrant workers. H-2B employers and their lobbyists hope to avoid an up or down, on-the-record vote on the H-2B program, which is why they are trying to expand an exploitative temporary foreign worker program by hijacking the appropriations process again, as they did last year. Politico reported last month how this corporate lobbying onslaught is already well underway.

“There are countless cases of abuse and exploitation and human trafficking through the H-2B program, but some of the abuses are perfectly legal, like being allowed to pay poverty wages to workers recruited from abroad to fill temporary jobs,” Costa said. “Expanding H-2B and stripping the Department of Labor of authority leaves migrant workers underpaid and vulnerable to the whims of employers and pushes wages down for American workers who want jobs in the major H-2B industries.”