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Business, Labor Groups Outline Points of Agreement on Guest-Worker Program

Business and labor groups working on a new foreign guest-worker program have agreed on a few points of their proposal but remain far apart on some key provisions.

In a statement released Thursday, the groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, called for a new independent body that would track labor markets in a more detailed way than is currently done “that will inform how America addresses future labor shortages.” The new body, modeled on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, would be politically independent and would provide data to show where foreign workers might be needed.

The statement is an acknowledgement that the negotiators need to show results. A bipartisan Senate group working on a broad immigration overhaul has outsourced the delicate question of future guest workers to the business and labor organizations.

The senators want to release a bill next month, putting pressure on the Chamber and the AFL-CIO to reach consensus soon on the critical guest-worker issue, which was one of the points of contention that sank the 2007 immigration overhaul effort. A separate stakeholder group is working on a proposal that would deal specifically with agricultural workers and employers.

The Chamber and AFL-CIO said they agree that American workers should get the “first crack at available jobs.” When no American workers are available, however, employers should be able to hire foreign labor, the statement said.

The two sides also agree that employers should be able to hire foreign workers “without having to go through a cumbersome and inefficient process.” At the same time, both American and foreign workers should be protected from unscrupulous employers, they said. That means that foreign workers should be able to move from job to job once they are in the country and should not be forced to remain “in permanent temporary status.”

The negotiators also said they are shooting for a new visa program that “automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts.”

How that adjustment would happen, though, remains a major topic of contention. The two sides have yet to figure out how the number of guest-worker visas should fluctuate in a volatile economy. Labor groups have said they want an independent commission to set the number of visas issued, while businesses want the number of guest workers to be determined based on market forces and employer demand.

Those differences have divided the two sides since they started meeting a few weeks ago. In their statement, business and labor recognized they still need to find a resolution, even as time is running short for them to meet the Senate’s deadline.

“We are now in the middle — not the end — of this process and we pledge to continue to work together with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country we all love,” the statement said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the bipartisan immigration working group in his chamber, praised the progress made by the Chamber and AFL-CIO negotiations.

“The fact that business and labor have agreed on principles is a major step forward,” Schumer, who chairs Senate Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, said in a statement Thursday.

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