Labor Department Does the Right Thing with Exploitative H-2B Program

By David North on November 1, 2010

The U.S. Labor Department is taking steps to raise wages employers are required to pay in the H-2B nonimmigrant worker program. And raising the wages may well mean that employers will be less likely to use it, thus reducing migration.

This program brings unskilled, non-agricultural workers to the United States by the tens of thousands. Worker organizations have long complained that the Labor Department, under the Bush administration, took a number of administrative steps to make sure that employers did not have to pay adequate wages to the alien workers, and to the resident workers who toiled alongside them.

The proposed raise in wages will apparently be at the $4 an hour level, a substantial boon to the landscapers, restaurant workers, and others involved in the program. The department announced this in a lengthy Federal Register notice on October 5, and it was described in an Interpreter Releases article on October 11. The deadline for comments is November 4.

Toward the end of the Bush administration, the Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas (the Committee to Support Farm Workers), two other small U.S. worker organizations, and an individual with an address in Mexico sued the Labor Department to make the program pay better wages and to otherwise improve it.

The case was heard in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which is where CATA represents mushroom pickers, and was decided by Federal District Judge Louis Pollak on August 30; the decision prodded the Labor Department into changing the rules, and increasing the wages. Though nominally the department lost the case, the Obama administration's DOL was, one assumes, content with the result; the department did not appeal the decision.

Setting the wages for foreign workers in these programs is an involved process, and is supposed to be done in a notice-and-comment process, which the CATA and the judge both declared was missing. The previous administration had manipulated the process to reduce the wages that had to be paid by employers using the program, and the new leadership of DOL was, presumably, happy to correct matters. The wage is supposed to be set at a level that will not adversely affect U.S. workers, and CATA said that was not the case.

The H-2B program plays the same role at the bottom of the labor market that the better-known H-1B program plays for much higher-paid tech workers in the computer and software industries. Since the people hurt by the latter program are generally college graduates, their complaints about the H-1B program have received much more media coverage than the more subdued comments of those resident workers hurt by H-2B.

For more on the inherent and persistent exploitation within this program, see the CIS Backgrounder on the subject by my colleague David Seminara.

According to the 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 25, there were 104,618 admissions in this category in FY 2008, the program's peak year. In the following year, given the generally lower level of economic activity, the number of admissions fell to 56,381.