You Can’t Teach a Crab to Walk Straight and Increasing H-2B Visas Isn’t going to Fix the Crab Industry


Mainstream media has been using the Maryland Chesapeake blue crab industry as its latest poster child for the need to increase the number of H-2B visas, or the temporary non-immigrant visas seasonal and agricultural companies use to employ blue collar workers. By statute, H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 and divided evenly between the winter and summer seasons, with 33,000 visas for summer and 33,000 visas for winter.

Before employers can hire foreign labor, however, they are required to first prove they tried to hire Americans for the jobs and workers must pass a background check. Many of the same foreign employees return every year, most traveling from Mexico and Central America.

In the past, workers who had previously come to the United States on H-2B visas were given a “returning worker” exemption and were not counted in the cap. Today, returning workers are counted in the cap as part of Trump’s program to put more Americans to work, but Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has the authority to raise the limit by as much as 70,000 extra visas for the summer, thus the hysterical push to increase the number of H-2B visas.

Companies vying for H-2B workers is limited and the demand high, so H-2B visas are now awarded via lottery. Those companies that fail to win the lottery, are left with no alternative other than to fill jobs with local American workers. In the case of Maryland crab processors, the loss of cheap Mexican labor to pick crabs has left them with a labor shortage. But as a native Marylander and a supporter of doing away with immigrant seasonal labor, I’m not sympathetic. For far too long, U.S. companies have been allowed to exploit what amounts to slave labor to increase their own profit margins. Here’s why it doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Right now, an 8 ounce can of crab meat sells north of $8. There isn’t much you can do with 8 ounces of crab, as any true native Marylander can tell you, we don’t adulterate our crab cakes with breading and 8 ounces isn’t a respectable amount of crab to stuff two decent-sized fish. Ready-to-eat crab meat has been an expensive consumer delicacy for decades, and by relying on HB-2 government visas, the industry has gotten a cheap labor pass for a long time. This isn’t a workable business model, it’s exploitation—year after year, decade upon decade.

According to the Wall Street Journal, state officials claim that the commercial blue crab harvest totaled 36.7 million pounds in 2016 and had a dockside value of $54.5 million. The numbers include the live-crab market and the processing sector. Processing crab is a lucrative business, and processors worried about thinner profit margins aren’t being exactly honest. Like welfare recipients, employers who habitually use H-B2 visas, have lost touch with the economy the rest of have to live in. They have been allowed to exploit the government’s immigration guest worker policies for cheap seasonal labor, effectively allowing the industry to skirt long-term changes to labor policies.

Picking crab meat has always been a labor-intensive seasonal job. I’ve picked my share of crabs on newspaper-covered picnic tables plenty of times, and I can tell you without hesitation, I wouldn’t do it unless the price was right. It’s laborious work.

Crab processors hooked on exploiting Mexican labor to work for next to nothing to provide the market with processed crab is exactly what Americans want to do away with.

Housing transit workers in shabby buildings and pushing them to work long hours at peak season to fill orders is no longer socially acceptable. Americans don’t want more H-2B visas, rather they want a fair wage for honest hard labor—even when it will cost them more on the retail end.

The crab industry doesn’t want their profit margins squeezed, and I get that. However, the answer isn’t increasing the number of H-2B guest workers, but raising the prices. Most Americans respect that labor-intensive endeavors are going to cost them more, particularly when we are a talking about a seasonal crustacean that, once considered a regional cheap eat, is now a seafood delicacy.

Don’t be deceived. Crab isn’t a commodity like corn, it’s an expensive premium product not eaten every day by all Americans. And if Americans are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on cheap Chinese-made sneakers, it stands to reason they’ll pay double for a pound of crab meat. The market can bear it.

Second, H-2B visas were not meant to be a permanent labor pool for crab processors. In fact, The H-2B working visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows foreign nationals to enter into the U.S. temporarily and engage in non-agricultural employment which is seasonal, intermittent, a peak load need, or a one-time occurrence.

Pushing for more H-2B visas and crying over the loss of their slave labor doesn’t drive me to sympathy but shows how farmers and other food producers are addicted to cheap labor and have been dependent on government to solve their market and labor issues. I am certain there are plenty of unemployed teens in the Baltimore and Annapolis areas and along Maryland’s Eastern Shore that would jump at the chance for summer-long employment for a fair wage.

According to Breitbart, “For weeks, media outlets printed warnings from Maryland’s seafood companies of an impending ‘labor shortage’ with the latest claims coming from the Wall Street Journal where businesses say they want more foreign workers to come to the U.S. through the H-2B visa program.”

Predictably, the liberal media is hard at work pushing for more immigration rather than focusing on why seafood companies are addicted to cheap labor rather than changing their production methods and employment policies. Conservatives will need to be prepared to suffer more bleeding-heart commentary from corporate-run media in the months and years ahead as Trump seeks to put “America First.” After all, who doesn’t sympathize with a gnarled old fishermen fighting to eek out a living or with Central Americans and Mexicans just trying to survive. But the picture we are being painted is inaccurate. It isn’t the fishermen who are relying on temporary non-immigrants, but the processing conglomerates.

Finally, processors are complaining that the situation is dire and that even if more H-2B visas were issued they don’t have time to get workers in place. But the peak crab season isn’t in May, but July and August when the waters around the Chesapeake are at their warmest. There is still time to recruit local workers and change the business model.

And for those companies that missed the H-2B visa lottery, there is nothing like a brick wall to force some ingenuity into fruition. Change now when you are forced to and you will benefit in the seasons to come by already having employment and production policies in place ahead of your competitors. No doubt this puts processors in a precarious position because if their competitors don’t follow suit, the market will cut them off at the knees.

The last time I purchased a bushel of live crabs in Maryland, the price was upwards of $50—and that was years ago. I can tell you that it was well worth paying the seasonal crabber for his catch. And I’d bet my last dollar that consumers will pay more for processed crab than the industry wants us to believe. It isn’t the consumer that is balking at the price of crab, but the middlemen who don’t want their profit margins squeezed.

Much has been written in the last six months about the alarming depression of teens and the restlessness and crime of inner-city youth. Nothing could be better for them than getting their minds off themselves and getting to work. A little sweat equity and hard work is what defined the Greatest Generation. It’s time to stop the government corporate handouts. There are expected to be more than 80,000 H-2B foreign workers that big business will be allowed to import to do blue-collar jobs like crab processing. Surely, there is room for fundamental system change with a this significant labor cushion already set in place.

Look, I love my Maryland roots and I grew up tying chicken necks to the bottom of cages for our own family crab haul long before I was old enough to master the perfect cast from the end of a pier. I can still see the image of my own son at age 7 sprawled out on his belly hanging a crab net over the side of the pier hauling up two crabs at a time where we once docked our boat.

Great memories aside, for the locals, crabs are cheap. They can be had with the price of a pack of chicken necks, a net and a cage. And if you own even just a john boat, you can put out your own pots and make a nice seasonal buck. But when the Wall Street Journal wants to tell us sad stories about fishermen and resorts on Martha’s Vineyard that can’t hire enough hospitality workers so they can increase the number of H-2B guest workers, my antenna goes up. I’m just not buying it.

John Steinbeck memorialized seasonal farm workers in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, more than 50 years ago, yet U.S. industry is still exploiting the world’s poorest workers for profit. At what point do we ask ourselves why are we importing what amounts to slave labor when we have recipients of government dollars all around us? Why aren’t the number of immigrants now on welfare made to earn their check by doing seasonal work or the millions of non-violent offenders serving time bused to idle crab processing plants. It’s simple. There is big money to be made in seasonal agriculture, and corporations are vested in policies that benefit not individuals, but shareholders.

When big leftist journalist act like Henny Penny and begin telling us the sky is falling, you can be sure there is a corporate CEO or corrupt RINO behind it. Take for instance, North Carolina’s Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who is blocking Trump nominees over his demand for increasing H-2B visas. He doesn’t care about Americans or immigrant workers, but about serving the chicken, hog and agricultural big corporations that run the eastern part of his State. The North Carolina agricultural business is a disgrace to giving both animals and people dignity in raising and processing livestock, but that’s another story for another time. For now, enjoy the crabs and ignore the media hysteria.

There is nothing like a backyard crab boil in Southern Maryland to brings back the Maryland memories. Someone bring me the melted butter and the Old Bay.