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Alaska Senator Mark Begich stated the lack of overtime pay affected seafood workers. (Photo: USSenatorMarkBegich/PSPA/FIS)

New visa rules would wreak havoc on Alaska's seafood sector

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012, 00:50 (GMT + 9)

Alaska’s State Department is working to halt visas that allow foreign students to work in national manufacturing jobs to avoid an employment crisis in anticipation of the summer season.

This overhaul of the J-1 Summer Work Travel programme follows reports of abuse including brutal sweatshop conditions for paltry pay in various parts of the country.

Glen Reed of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association said the programme allows 4,000-5,000 foreign students to work in the Alaska seafood industry each summer. Smaller seafood processing companies hire half their workers this way and then scramble to find replacements.

The Alaska congressional delegation thinks the change is a bad idea and hopes to at least delay it until next year, The News Tribune reports.

"This abrupt reduction in the available workforce would impact not just the participating students and processing companies but fishermen who depend on these processors to sell their catch and the communities in which these facilities operate," Alaska Senator Mark Begich recently wrote to the Obama Administration.

"Remote Alaska communities where the local economy largely depends on relatively small processing facilities are likely to suffer the greatest hardship."

The seafood plants are often remote and many Alaskans do not want these jobs, Reed explained. They are taxing and pay little.

The J-1 visa issue came after a review ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in response to reports of exploited workers in the lower 48 states.

But Senators Begich and Lisa Murkowski assured Clinton that the seafood industry in Alaska is complying with the J-1 programme goals and work safety standards, KTVA reports.

In November, Begich wrote Clinton asking for the programme to be reviewed. He said that foreign students travel to Kodiak, Kenai and Soldotna and depend on locals for help because they cannot afford housing and transportation; students sometimes even took overtime work from the locals.

"The lack of overtime pay caused local residents to lack the usual income to provide for their families. Some had to visit the food bank and local homeless shelter for assistance," Begich wrote.

But he never asked for foreign students to be forbidden from seafood plants, said his spokeswoman, Julie Hasquet.

Meanwhile, seafood processors continue struggling to find replacement workers for the summer season.

By Natalia Real


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