"On Point" on the Federal Betrayal of American Workers, Part 1

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on August 3, 2012

As a former reporter, I regard the paucity of journalistic attention to the growth of federal programs that bring in foreign workers for temporary employment as an egregious failure of American journalism.

But a recent edition of the "On Point" radio program, which is produced at Boston public radio station WBUR, was a noble effort to fill the information void. In conversation with host Tom Ashbrook, who seemed to grow more incredulous with each example of our government's fecklessness, Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute staked out the story. Then two American contractors called in with details of the ongoing assault on their ability to earn a decent living.

This is a remarkable issue that cries for serious attention. So we'll present it in several installments. Today's post will introduce Eisenbrey's concerns. We'll have more next week, citing the stories of the contractors, which conveyed both bewilderment and a sense of betrayal at what is taking place.

Eisenbrey said the booming J-1, H-2a, and H-2b programs are just part of the "alphabet soup" of temporary worker programs available to employers eager to drive down wages by bringing in foreign workers, many of whom regard our minimum wage as big money. If American employers got their way, Eisenbrey said, the temporary workforce that now numbers hundreds of thousands "would be probably millions".

Having recently written a report about the Summer Work Travel component of the J-1 program — a megamillion dollar jackpot for cheap labor employers, recruiters, and sponsoring agencies who claim to be pursuing "cultural exchanges" — I say "amen" to that.

Eisenbrey told of employers' success in persuading both Republican and Democratic senators to defeat a proposed Labor Department rule that would have required landscaping companies to pay local prevailing wages to its guestworkers. Such a wage would eliminate much of the incentive for hiring the foreign workers.

With that rule defeated, and with access to foreign laborers assured by their political friends, employers have driven wages down, Eisenbrey said. "So you have landscaping companies that pay eight or nine dollars an hour when they used to pay $12 an hour and they say, 'Well, we can't find Americans anymore.'"

He pointed to the seafood processing industry on the East Coast as an example. "It used to be that Americans did these jobs," Eisenbrey said. "They picked seafood. African American women on the eastern seaboard did these jobs in several states. They're not employed there anymore. It's entirely immigrant labor, and it's because they have driven the wages down to minimum wage or lower."

Read Part 2