Guest workers in the US on limited visas fill many seasonal and temporary jobs, and the seafood industry is no exception.
But a hard cap on the number of workers allowed under the H2-B visa program threatens the seafood industry, which already has low-profit margins.
“Industries like seafood processing that are very low margin industries, where profit margins are everything – those industries can be very vulnerable,” Matthew Fannin, a professor at Louisiana State University who specializes in rural economics, told Aquaculture North America (ANA).
Rural areas, especially, lack a deep labor pool. Other industries, with larger profit margins, such as construction, can absorb increased labor costs more easily, Fannin said. In contrast, many seafood businesses are family owned. “They’re not large business corporations,” Fannin said.
H-2A visas apply to agricultural production workers, while H2-B visas apply to post-agricultural production workers. Only 66,000 workers can come to the US on H2-B visas, while H2-A visas aren’t capped. The workers can stay for 10 months per year in the US for three years, returning to their home country in between each stint.
The H2-B workers are shared among industries, with 40 percent going to gardening, 12 percent going to hospitality and 20 percent going to meat and seafood.
“Every year, 66,000 workers can come to the US and so many industries are competing for these workers,” said Rajib Hasan, a PhD student at Louisiana State University, who is studying the H2-B visa program.
H2-B workers fill the gap when local workers can’t, and people in the seafood industry worry that 66,000 workers isn’t enough to meet demand. But raising the cap would take an act of Congress.
“Sometimes they tell you it’s hard to find employees when they need them,” Maria Bampasidou, an assistant professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at Louisiana State University, told ANA.
Different seafood products have different seasonal needs – some require labor year-round, while others are more intermittent. Seasonal jobs often deter potential workers. “They want to find a full-time job or look for an industry that will be there next year,” Bampasidou said.
The three researchers are studying the impacts of labor policy changes on the Louisiana seafood processing and production sectors, and have been awarded a grant to do so through 2018. So far, they only have anecdotal evidence about the need for guest workers in Louisiana. They’re seeking more quantitative evidence.
They also want to find out how frequently the Louisiana seafood industry uses guest workers, and what will happen to the industry if labor shortages occur, and if wages rise. The researchers are also going to study why seafood producers and processors hire guest workers, and how much those workers cost.
Foreign guest workers provide crucial labor for Louisiana seafood producers and processors, but the federal government only issues a limited number of visas every year. The number of guest workers has reportedly been in short supply, according to the researchers.
Retaining a seafood economy doesn’t just benefit the workers; some towns’ and cities’ identities are based on seafood. New Orleans, for instance, has an economy based largely on tourism, which in turn is based on a culture rooted in seafood.
“As you slowly erode the availability of these products, it makes it difficult over time to maintain that cultural identity,” Fannin said.
— Aaron Orlowski