An economic group representing more than 50 communities in Southwest Alaska is asking the federal government to keep alive a student work visa program they say is critical to the commercial fisheries industry. The concerns of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference for the J-1 Visa summer work travel program are contained in a March 16 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Similar concerns were voiced again this past week to the federal Office of Management and Budget by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference said excluding seafood processing from the J-1 program will likely displace 3,000 to 5,000 student workers already signed on to work in Alaska this summer, while leaving processors with a labor shortage.
The program received much negative publicity last summer when foreign students in the J-1 program protested working conditions at facilities packing chocolates for Hershey in Pennsylvania. The State Department’s response included a proposed interim final rule that would exclude all seafood processing from the program. Leaders of the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference said students engaged for fish processing jobs in Southwest Alaska received a good wage, plus an opportunity to experience a remote, culturally and geographically abundant region of America.
SWAMC and Begich both told the federal government that the foreign student workers are a vital part of the work force for processing seafood and that a labor shortage in the processing sector would have a direct impact on harvesters who would be unable to sell all their catch due to disruptions in processing capacity.
They asked federal officials to consider necessary adjustments to meet the program’s intended goals, while keeping in mind the economic value of the foreign student workers to execute the summer salmon fisheries.