From AFL-CIO Now:
Solis Investigating Guest Worker Visas on Florida Hotel Project
by James Perks
In one of her first official acts as labor secretary, Hilda Solis has asked for a review of how Mexican sheet metal workers were given visas to work on the St. Regis Hotel project in Bal Harbour, Fla., when more than 1,000 members of the Sheet Metal Workers union (SMWIA) are out of work in the same area.
The company hired to install the heating and air conditioning ducts, CYVSA International, received approval from the state of Florida and the Bush Labor Department for visas to bring in foreign workers for seasonal work. But the visas are supposed to be granted only if there are no Americans available to do the job.
Florida ranked second in the number of jobs certified for foreign workers under one of the visa programs known as H-2B. In 2008, a total of 22,195 jobs in the state were approved for H-2B foreign workers, including 1,145 construction workers, 119 roofers, 10 electricians and six bricklayers.
Many employers want to bring in more guest workers to keep wages low, experts say. Many companies pay less than a living wage, and some force the foreign workers to live in horrid conditions and work long hours.
Solis wants to know how CYVSA could hire foreign workers when there are sheet metal workers out of work in South Florida. At a town hall meeting earlier this week, as part of the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Miami, Solis said:
We are going to have to take a look at it and, hopefully, work closely with [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano to see how we better focus so that these things don’t happen and that we avoid them [in the future]. There were before I came into my position visas that were permitted under the Bush administration that we will take a very, very close look at and [with] a very keen eye go through. But, rest assured, we will take a strong view on that.
Jim DeFede, an investigative reporter for Miami’s CBS4.com, describes how CYVSA, one of the largest construction companies in Mexico, manipulated the rules to ensure it could hire foreign workers. CYVSA’s action also show how the current immigration visa system favors employers, the SMWIA says.
DeFede reports that CYVSA applied to Florida for permission to use foreign labor on Sept. 30, 2008. The next day, Oct. 1 at 9:05 a.m., the state agency, following federal rules, opened a 10-day recruitment period to find U.S. workers. During those 10 days, CYVSA was required to contact the local union and place ads in the Miami Herald.
But CYVSA did not place the ads or call the union until it was near the end of the 10-day period and never said there was a deadline to apply.
The union sent resumes of unemployed sheet metal workers to the state by certified mail Oct. 10. But by the time they were mailed, the state had officially closed the recruitment period at 9:16 a.m. on Oct. 10. The state then notified the federal government that no American citizens applied for the jobs and the Department of Labor subsequently certified CYVSA’s request for foreign workers.
Larry Stewart, business manager for SMWIA Local 32, told DeFede this is not a union or nonunion issue. This is an issue that affects all workers, he said. And it is outrageous that the U.S. government and the state of Florida allowed the employer to profit by importing foreign workers when so many U.S. workers are out of work.