The Arizona Republic
The pilot guest-worker program being fast-tracked through the Arizona Legislature won't work.
And that's the good news. If it did work, it would be bad news for Arizona workers.
As with guest worker programs proposed at the national level, the Arizona version trips over the perceived political need to demonstrate that the imported laborers aren't taking jobs away from native-born workers.
The result is a system too cumbersome and bureaucratic to be practical.
To import a worker, an employer would have to petition the Industrial Commission. The petition would have to include documentation of the employer's unsuccessful efforts to find local workers. The commission has 30 days to consider the petition. If the petition is approved, the employer can recruit for employees in Mexico from U.S. consulate offices.
Before a Mexican worker can be hired, the employer must somehow obtain an application that includes a photograph and fingerprints. That application also is submitted to the commission. A criminal background check must then be performed in both the United States and Mexico.
Assuming the background checks are clean, the commission can then issue a temporary work card. After receiving the card, the employee can finally come to the United States to take the job.
To put it kindly, that's not a system that's going to be of much value when the busboy quits.
The pilot program would also give employers monopsony power. That's where the purchaser, rather than the supplier, has excessive pricing leverage.
There cannot be a shortage of something except at a particular price. The proposed legislation, however, allows employers to claim a labor shortage without reference to wages.
This means that employers can set the wages of their employees, rather than wages being determined through a market competition for workers. Rather than having to increase wages to attract workers, employers can simply declare a labor shortage and import some.
Moreover, the guest worker is tied to a particular job. If the sponsoring employer fires him, he has to go back to Mexico. The potential for abuse and exploitation is obvious.
The low-skilled labor market in the United States is characterized by mobility and turnover. The only sensible way to construct a guest-worker program to supplement the native-born low-skilled work force is to make it operate independent of specific employers.
Some governmental agency would set a quota for guest workers based upon overall labor market conditions, including wages in low-skilled occupations. Guest workers filling the quota would have complete mobility within the labor market.
Such a program would not need to be very big. Contrary to the claims of the business community, there isn't a demonstrated shortage of low-skill workers in this country.
Outside of agriculture, it is simply untrue that illegal immigrants are taking jobs Americans won't do. The Pew Hispanic Center, hardly an anti-immigration outfit, has done the most thorough job of trying to determine which jobs illegal immigrants are taking and the percentage of workers in those jobs they constitute.
Outside of agriculture, the highest concentration of illegal workers found by the center was 36 percent among insulation installers. So, illegal immigrants not only are taking jobs Americans are willing to do, they are taking jobs Americans are doing.
You can take all the employer surveys you want, but until the real wages of low-skilled workers are increasing, there cannot be a credible claim of a shortage of them.
The real wages of low-skilled workers in this country are stagnant or declining, and particularly so in the occupations in which illegal immigrants are concentrated.
A declining price of something does not indicate a shortage of it.
The employer sanctions law may put some Arizona employers at a competitive disadvantage by cutting off their access to illegal labor.
But only those firms that compete nationally or globally and have intense low-skilled labor needs. In reality there aren't that many of them.
Why would the Legislature want to compensate by trying to drive down the wages and dry up the opportunities of all low-skilled workers in the state?
Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican, is on the right track. The only job for which the structure of this pilot guest- worker program is possibly suited is seasonal agricultural work.
Other than that, the best thing that can be said for Arizona's proposed pilot guest- worker program is that it's designed for failure.