If you're an American worker or taxpayer, the headline at the top of The Bulletin's front page on Sunday made your blood boil - or should have."Stimulus jobs go to foreign workers," it said. Underneath it, a subhead elaborated: "Oregon contractors hiring for forest work, say qualified locals unavailable."
The story went on to describe how nearly $13 million in federal stimulus money has gone to Oregon forestry companies that are using temporary, seasonal foreign workers.
Competitors of the companies that use imported workers complain they can't compete with them for contracts because of the low wages they pay. One of them, Darst Atherly, said that on one job his company was underbid by 50% by a competitor who uses foreign workers.
Companies are allowed to bring in foreign workers under something called the H-2B program, which issues temporary visas to foreigners if employers can't find enough qualified American workers to do the job. That's what the forestry companies that are importing workers claim.
And claiming it is all they have to do. The government doesn't check to see if there's really a shortage of American workers; if a company says so, the feds take the company's word for it.
Frankly, with unemployment in Oregon in double digits and tens of thousands of Oregonians desperate for any kind of work, it strains credulity to think companies couldn't find plenty of Oregonians to fill their payrolls. So why not hire Oregonians instead of using imported workers?
Because bringing in workers on H-2B visas can make life a lot easier - and more profitable - for an employer.
H-2B workers are in the country, basically, at the pleasure of their employer. Under the terms of the federal stimulus bill they're supposed to get paid the "prevailing wage," but they're not likely to make a stink if they don't. They're also not likely to complain about long hours, squalid living quarters or unsafe working conditions.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a report aptly titled "Close to Slavery," wrote that workers who are here on H-2 visas "are systematically exploited and abused. Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market - the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who 'import' them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation."
The H-2 program is inhumane and abusive toward the "guest workers" under the best of circumstances - and it insults American workers and taxpayers to be using stimulus money to bring in foreign workers at a time when this nation is mired in the worst recession since World War II.
The SPLC calls for the H-2 program to be scrapped, or, failing that, to be "completely overhauled." Given the clout of agribusiness in Congress, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
But nothing's stopping us from giving the program THE BOOT right now, along with the companies that use it to deprive Americans of jobs that are rightfully and legally theirs.