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Why Does the AFL-CIO Want Foreign Workers Paid More Than Native-Born Ones?

Washington Post Online (03/26/13) Suzy Khimm

A major issue in the current immigration reform talks involves the AFL-CIO union’s desire for temporary foreign workers to be paid significantly more than their native-born counterparts are, on average. Business wants to be able to pay foreign workers the same as native-born workers, with the federal minimum wage as a floor. Union officials, by contrast, have proposed a tiered system that would ask employers to pay anywhere between 20% and 70% more to hire foreign workers, which includes both wage increases and fees. “Bringing in workers below median by definition lowers median wages for everyone,” asserts Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman who argues that the higher wages will benefit both native- and foreign-born workers.

Policy analysts note that setting any kind of comparison between native-born workers and foreign workers is difficult, and even an effort to pay foreign workers the same as their native-born counterparts is difficult to achieve, as there is not a clear universal yardstick to use. Such questions haven’t even been completely resolved inside existing temporary worker programs. The U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, has finalized a rule prohibiting employers from paying lower wages because of less work experience under the H2-B visa program, concluding that it is difficult for employers to verify the length of work experience, making it easier for businesses to underpay foreign workers. However, Congress has held back funding for enforcing this new regulation, so businesses haven’t borne the brunt of complying with it.