The perennial impasse in the immigration debate between labor and business seems to be fading as a group of senators, working with industry and union lobbies, irons out a framework that would bring more migrants into the labor force, purportedly under a system that extends rights and protections for so-called “guestworkers.” But what the new system really means for workers depends on how it is implemented and regulated, and who is controlling the gates.
The proposed W-visa plan reportedly strikes a compromise between business’s desire for low-cost labor and union concerns (represented by the AFL-CIO in Washington) about maintaining jobs for U.S. workers and enforcing wage-and-hour laws. Aimed at less-skilled sectors like restaurant work, the W-visa would differ from previous employment-based visas in two key ways. For one, it would offer immigrants a way to petition for residency and eventually attain citizenship. And unlike much maligned temporary-worker programs, the visa would be “portable,” meaning it would not be tied to a specific workplace or employer. In theory, that would allow a worker to switch jobs without jeopardizing her legal status.
Addressing fears of creating a “second tier,” or minimally regulated low-wage workforce, the compromise reportedly ensures that employers pay no less than the industry’s standard “prevailing wage,” determined according to labor market conditions. The New York Times reports:
Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.