The let's-exploit-foreign-workers-even-more bunch on Capitol Hill has just introduced a piece of legislation that might be regarded as a compliment to the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL). (Disclosure: I worked there more than three decades ago.)
Three Republican congressmen have introduced what they call the SEASON Act to ease the minimal existing regulations on the H-2B program for unskilled, non-agricultural foreign workers, and to expand the numbers of be admitted each year, without actually saying so.
The SEASON Act would also make it possible for these "seasonal" workers to stay in the country for up to three years at a time if their employers so desire. That's a long season!
While I was grumpy the other day about how the DoL treated another group of temporary workers, shepherds, I must say that this bill is a back-handed compliment to DoL. This is the case because the bill would transfer the administration of H-2B away from those nasty, demanding folks at DoL and give it to the presumably less rigorous ones at the Department of Homeland Security.
The H-2B program permits the admission of 66,000 temporary alien workers a year, with minimal oversight by the government. For a searing examination of that program, see this CIS Backgrounder by my colleague David Seminara, and this more recent piece of investigative reporting by BuzzFeed: "The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S., Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare".
The text of the proposed bill, H.R.3918, can be read here. Its full title is the "Strengthen Employment and Seasonal Opportunities Now" Act. Its sponsors are Reps. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Andrew Harris (R-Md.), and Charles Boustany, Jr. (R-La.). The latter two represent districts that employ a substantial number of seafood workers, such as crab pickers. This work was traditionally done by American residents until the factories found that H-2B workers were less expensive and less likely to stand up for their rights.
Here's an admittedly anecdotal insight into this legislation: A few years ago at a conference I talked with a professor who studies seafood factories and their labor practices. He said one of the reasons employers use H-2B workers is that they can bring them in weeks before the season starts and charge them rent for the squalid — and otherwise empty — living quarters owned by the factory owners, even though there is little or no work for the migrants. If a foreign worker refuses to come early for the season, he or she is not hired.
Sure enough in the SEASON Act there is a provision saying that H-2B employers do not need to furnish free housing to their workers, though agricultural employers have to provide free housing to their (roughly comparable) H-2A workers.