A week before a court was to rule on a challenge to the Department of Labor's reforms to the way low-skilled foreign seasonal workers are brought into the country on the H-2B non-agricultural work visa, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to hobble the department's efforts.
The move was welcomed by businesses that rely on a regular supply of legal foreign temporary workers, such as seafood processors and landscapers. Labor rights and fair wage activists decried the Senate action, which blocks a requirement for a 75 percent wage guarantee to these workers -- a rule that has been in effect for H-2A agricultural workers for years. The implementation of the rules would raise the operating expenses of companies that have come to depend on a regular supply of legal foreign temps.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., added the amendment to the labor appropriations bill at the last minute, which received bipartisan support, including backing from Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who represent states with large seafood processing industries. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, voted against the amendment.
While the committee's decision doesn't kill the Labor Department's efforts, it ties the implementation of the reforms to the 2013 congressional budget debate.
The move drew familiar lines pitting employers against worker's rights advocates.
"Today's vote is a disgrace. It's a setback for guest workers, struggling U.S. workers, and small businesses that play by the rules," said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. "Corporations and their lobbyists have been desperate to block the Department of Labor's new H-2B rules, because their profit model is based on exploiting guest workers and unfairly excluding U.S. workers."
But the Coalition to Save America's Seafood Industry hailed the decision.
"We are very pleased that committee members appreciate the danger posed by the Labor Department's proposed rules to America's seafood industry, which already faces so many other challenges," Jack Brooks, president of the organization, said in a statement. "Additional, onerous requirements cannot be accepted without grievous harm to the industry and the loss of thousands of American jobs."
On April 23, a federal court issued a temporary injunction against the implementation of the Labor Department's new rules, which had been more than a year in the making. The challenge was brought forth by five companies and trade groups in landscaping and forestry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.