Seafood Processors Could Take a Hard Hit from New J-1 Visa Laws
Could affect number of foreign students working in Alaska
ALASKA - Many seafood processors in Alaska rely on foreign students to fill their seasonal employment needs.
Now there is uncertainty in the industry because of proposed changes to the foreign worker visa program. These changes could take effect as soon as this spring.
The federal government wants to remove some jobs offered to foreign students who want to work in the U.S. on a J-1 visa. They include jobs in factories and manufacturing, a potential change that could hit Alaska’s seafood processors hard.
In a letter Senator Mark Begich wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, he says "such an abrupt change in the available labor pool just before the start of the salmon season would have immediate negative consequences for the companies, and the fishermen and communities, which depend on their operations.”
The J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program was designed by the State Department so foreign students can come to America and have a cultural experience. Concerns about the summer work program heightened last year when issues about safety and work conditions arose in some Lower 48 workplaces.
Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have written to Clinton with assurance that the seafood industry in Alaska is complying with the J-1 program goals and work safety laws.
Foreign students are a significant source of labor for seafood processors in the state and many companies will have to scramble to fill positions if changes to the visa program go through.
Robin Richardson, the Chief Business Development Officer for Copper River Seafoods, says her company has been hiring students every summer for 10 years.
“...Primarily from the Czech Republic during the harvest season, during the summer, to work in Togiak, Cordova, Kenai and Anchorage,” says Richardson.
"We do have some cued up to potentially come over, but we're waiting again to see what happens with the State Department; in the meantime we have an active recruitment program going on."
Richardson says her company is hoping to fill the gaps with local workers by expanding the skills needed and offering an apprenticeship program.
"The jobs we are creating are not what normally people would consider the traditional ancient slime-line jobs,” says Richardson. “What we are looking at is creating really professional food manufacturing jobs.”