(Feb 21) Characterizing themselves as being “in the middle—not the end” of negotiations over how immigration reform should handle the question of guest workers, the presidents of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement laying out the broad strokes of three reforms:
First, American workers should have a first crack at available jobs. To that end, business and labor are committed to improving the way that information about job openings in lesser-skilled occupations reaches the maximum number of workers, particularly those in disadvantaged communities.Second, there are instances—even during tough economic times—when employers are not able to fill job openings with American workers. Those instances will surely increase as the economy improves, and when they occur, it is important that our laws permit businesses to hire foreign workers without having to go through a cumbersome and inefficient process. Our challenge is to create a mechanism that responds to the needs of business in a market-driven way, while also fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.
Third, we need to fix the system so that it is much more transparent, which requires that we build a base of knowledge using real-world data about labor markets and demographics. The power of today’s technology enables us to use that knowledge to craft a workable demand-driven process fed by data that will inform how America addresses future labor shortages. We recognize that there is no simple solution to this issue. We agree that a professional bureau in a federal executive agency, with political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, should be established to inform Congress and the public about these issues.
The creation of a guest worker program is a major concession by unions—how major will be determined by the details—while, as Suzy Khimm notes, the creation of a new federal bureau to track labor markets would be a concession by business.
There’s a lot left unanswered here, with dangers addressed in excruciating detail by a new Southern Poverty Law Center report on abuses in current guest worker programs (via). Would guest workers be tied to a single employer? If so, guest workers would have much less ability to protest mistreatment, even illegal actions by their employers, opening the entire system up to abuses. How would the jobs included under the guest worker program at any given time be defined? How strong would wage and hour protections be in theory, and how strongly would they be enforced? Would recruitment of guest workers be monitored, given that many guest workers pay extortionate amounts to get their jobs in the first place?
It’s not that guest worker programs absolutely 100 percent have to be abusive. It’s just that they usually are in practice, and that having a pool of low-paid, easily abused workers is a big reason the business lobby wants guest workers. So this is an area where it’s in the best interest of people who are working in the United States now and people who hope to be soon to proceed with the utmost caution.
Laura Clawson reports on labor and other issues at Daily Kos, where this post originally appeared.