Last week, the office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent out one of its regular legislative updates. This one was more triumphant than most coming out of the stagnant 113th Congress. It declared that Murkowski (with the help of Sen. Mark Begich) had successfully inserted language reviving the J-1 visa program into a funding bill for the U.S. State Department.
State fisheries columnist Laine Welch, writing from Kodiak, remarked in part that “Alaska seafood processors will soon get relief.”
We weren’t aware that multibillion-dollar seafood corporations needed help to make money.
Two years ago, the U.S. State Department suspended much of the J-1 visa program in Alaska. The program was created during the Cold War to let foreign college students into the United States for summer jobs, giving them a taste of America and sending them home with (hopefully) fond memories.
Unfortunately, many unscrupulous companies took advantage of these students. Middleman agencies promised to connect students with jobs but sometimes charged them thousands of dollars for the priviledge.
Once in the U.S., other companies took further advantage and turned the process into little more than indentured servitude. In 2011, hundreds of J-1 visa workers employed by Hershey’s Chocolate went on strike to protest brutal conditions and sub-minimum-wage pay.
The strike garnered national attention, and the State Department reacted, shutting down the J-1 program for industrial work — including in Alaska fish processing plants.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when the state’s fisheries were booming, American college students did much of the slime line work in the state. They gutted fish, shelled crab and manned the cannery line. They lived in tents and Volkswagen vans parked on gravel pull-outs across the state, then went back to school with enough money to pay for their studies. Among them was a young Hillary Clinton, who worked in a Valdez plant.
In the 1990s, that system started to change. Plants discovered they could call a J-1 middleman and simply ask for a certain number of workers — and those workers would appear, as if by magic. There was no need for hiring fairs on college campuses, no need to travel the country, recruiting workers for summer jobs.
More and more, seafood processors began relying on temporary, non-Alaska workers. J-1 visas were but one contributing factor to this switch.
In 2012, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, fully 69.3 percent of Alaska’s 25,000 seafood processing workers were nonresidents. Across all industries, the state average was less than 20 percent.
Seafood is an inherently erratic business. Most seasons don’t operate year-round, and thus year-round processing employment is uncommon except in places where several species of fish are harvested.
With that in mind, Alaska’s Congressional delegation should not be encouraging companies to hire non-resident workers.
Alaska was built with the work of immigrants — but these were immigrants who came to Alaska and stayed, not those who worked for a summer and left. If labor is needed, we need to encourage permanent immigration, not temporary, seasonal work.
We don’t care if a worker comes from Cairo, Illinois or Cairo, Egypt — if he or she stays in Alaska, his or her wages stay in the state, too. That means a stronger state economy and better business for everyone else.
The J-1 visa program is the worst of both worlds for Alaska. It provides no avenue for a permanent stay, and it fills a job that an Alaska resident might have otherwise taken. Every other business in the state suffers when seafood processors use nonresident labor.
According to the state Department of Labor, Alaska’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 6.4 percent in May, one-tenth of a percent above the overall U.S. unemployment rate. Since the Great Recession began, Alaska’s unemployment rate has stayed well below the rest of the U.S. That now appears to be changing, as the American unemployment rate drops and Alaska’s stays steady or rises.
Seafood companies have said that they have trouble hiring enough workers to meet demand and need the J-1 program. They certainly seemed to cope well enough last year, which had no J-1 workers and plenty of salmon — the most, in fact, on record.
Alaska’s seafood industry can do just fine without the J-1 program, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation should think twice about supporting an effort that promises to siphon money from the state’s economy.
• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, email@example.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, email@example.com.