Worker Protections Take a Backseat in the Drive to More H-2B Visas
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to issue an additional 64,716 visas to semi-skilled foreign workers during fiscal 2024, on top of the 66,000 H-2B visas available annually.
The H-2B program has a horrendous record of fraud and abuse, and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ is promising “robust protections for U.S. and foreign workers alike.” Reforms are long overdue, but Mayorkas undercuts his pledge by continuing to accentuate a supposed need for evermore visa labor to “contribute to the American economy.”
Citing data from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) last year calculated nearly $1.8 billion in “wage theft” across seven industries heavy with H-2B workers.
Of 225,227 WHD investigations between 2000 and 2021, violations were found in 180,451 cases. That means whenever WHD investigates an employer in one of the seven major H-2B industries, there is an 80 percent likelihood of one or more violations.
Financial penalties totaled nearly $115 million, with half of them assessed in the food service and construction sectors. These relatively light fines – amounting to barely 6.4 percent of the reported wage theft – don’t present much of a disincentive for bad behavior, and are simply written off as the cost of doing business.
According to EPI, “wage theft is rampant because the H-2B visa program is deeply flawed. … It fails both to ensure that migrant workers are paid fairly and treated with dignity and to prevent harm to the domestic workforce.” Specifically:
- The current structure does not prevent employers with track records of labor and wage and hour violations from hiring through the H-2B program.
- Existing rules make it easy for employers to game the system and bypass available U.S. workers who may be seeking seasonal jobs.
To make matters worse, a draft proposal circulating on Capitol Hill would blow off the H-2B cap by exempting select employers and foreign workers from the legal, annual limit. Other provisions would make visa holders a year-round permanent fixture, displacing qualified and willing U.S. workers. All told, this is as much about job theft as wage theft.
Whether Mayorkas’ promised protections will cure H-2B’s fundamental defects remains to be seen. But the secretary’s risible insistence that America’s southern “border is not open” – while the administration expedites employment permits to illegal aliens – doesn’t inspire confidence that American workers are a priority.