SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

State Department gives Seafood Industry a pass on new rules this season


May 07, 2012

(SitNews) - Foreign students will continue to be allowed to work in Alaska seafood plants this summer, ensuring no disruption to the upcoming salmon season.  This after the State Department finalized an interim rule regarding the Summer Work Travel, or J-1 Visa program, which would not affect the seafood processing industry until November.  The J-1 program allows seasonal employment for foreign students at fish plants and other jobs in Alaska and across the country. The U.S. State Department announced changes to the J-1 summer visa program Friday.

The seafood industry in the largest private sector employer in Alaska, generating about 70,000 jobs annually.  The foreign student workers are provided the same housing and meals as other employees in seafood plants and work under federally regulated safety standards. In response to the continuing labor needs, Begich is considering legislation to establish a temporary work visa program for the seafood industry such as exists for agriculture and other sectors. 

“Alaska seafood processing plants depend on foreign students to meet their seasonal labor needs when they cannot find local or domestic workers for the jobs,” U.S. Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “Abrupt elimination of this source of labor would have seriously disrupted the upcoming salmon season, affecting even fishermen and local fishing communities which depend on the seasonal processors.”

In response to the annoucement U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a prepared statement,  “Alaskans place the highest priority on hiring state residents; that’s why our unemployment rate is below the national average. But seafood processors tell me the J-1 visa program allows them to add critical seasonal staff when Alaska workers aren’t available. Changing that program without an opportunity for all interested parties to comment and time for the industry to adapt is not appropriate."

When the proposed interim rule was first announced, Begich said he spearheaded the questioning of the proposed changes, raising his concerns to the State Department and OMB in multiple letters and phone calls over recent months urging officials to listen to industry concerns and not expedite a decision regarding the J-1 visa program.  Begich staff accompanied fishermen to OMB headquarters to help make their case.  While reforms to the program are needed, as demonstrated by issues which arose elsewhere around the nation, abrupt action could have had a negative impact on seafood processing in Alaska.  

Begich said, “I’m very pleased the Administration listened to these concerns and responded by not taking expedited action, rather allowing time for the industry to adjust and make its case about why the program should be allowed to continue.  In talking to processors, I continue to urge them to maximize local employment first but for many processors, especially those in remote communities, that local labor pool is insufficient to meet the industry’s needs.”

While extending the program for seafood processors through the summer, the final rule includes restrictions on the program such as work hours which may affect some operations.  Begich has asked processors how those may affect their operations.

Murkowski said, “I’m disappointed that the Administration is implementing some significant changes without the typical formal notice and comment period, but pleased they realized an immediate prohibition would be disruptive to summer salmon fisheries across the state."

“Alaska’s seafood amounted to nearly half of the state’s exports last year.  [Friday's] decision signifies that the Administration heard our concerns about the workforce seafood processors are counting on for the upcoming season, and that they will be allowed to do their jobs," said Murkowski.

The State Department on Friday submitted to the Federal Register an Interim Final Rule (IFR) for the Summer Work Travel (SWT) category of the Exchange Visitor Program.  


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews



Cheap Labor as Cultural Exchange - Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered an “extensive and thorough review” of the State Department’s troubled Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, which every year brings more than 100,000 college students from around the world to fill low-wage seasonal jobs at fish processing plants in Alaska, national parks, and other locations around the United States. - More...
SitNews - December 20, 2011


On the Web:

The IFR is posted on the State Department’s J-1 Visa website

Sources of News: 

U.S. Senator Mark Begich

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski


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