By Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. labor unions said on Thursday they were closer to resolving problems with wages for future unskilled immigrant workers like janitors and housekeepers - an issue that has stalled progress on a U.S. Senate proposal to overhaul the immigration system.
"We have moved off poverty level wages and are moving forward and are working on a standard that will protect U.S. workers," said Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, legislative representative for the biggest union the AFL-CIO.
Late last week, disputes over a new visa program for foreign workers between the AFL-CIO, the labor federation, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce threatened to derail immigration reform talks between a group of four Republican and four Democratic Senators.
The AFL-CIO had accused Republicans and businesses of trying to undercut wages. And the Chamber, the biggest business lobby, said unions were jeopardizing the immigration reform effort.
Now the AFL-CIO is saying that the unions, the Chamber and lawmakers are coalescing around the idea of using a wage standard that already exists in current law rather than specific wage levels.
Both high-skilled and low-skilled visa programs specify that visas will only be issued if they do not drive down the wages of those doing the same job in the United States.
"I think there is an agreement that it should be a standard and we are finalizing what that standard should say," said DiBitetto. "We are working with them to find the language that the senators and labor and the Chamber can agree to," she said.
The Chamber also a took a more conciliatory tone on Thursday and said any temporary worker program would require that an immigrant worker "be paid the greater of actual wages being paid to comparable American workers or the prevailing wages as determined by the Department of Labor."
The bipartisan Senate group is aiming to introduce legislation in April that would give millions of illegal immigrants a way to earn citizenship as well create a process for dealing with the future flow of unskilled labor into the country.
The temporary worker program is one of the remaining issues left for senators to resolve and one that has contributed to the downfall of other immigration reform efforts in the past.
The unions and the business community have already reached an agreement on other contentious parts of the new worker program, including how many visas will be issued per year, according to the AFL-CIO.
Unlike existing visa programs, the new one would take into consideration the health of the economy and unemployment figures and expand and contract the flow of workers based on those factors, the labor group said.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash)