Labor, with unlikely allies, tackles exploitation of high-tech workers

WASHINGTON (PAI) – In an illustration of how specific problems can spur wide coalitions between forces that ordinarily are longstanding foes, organized labor is part of an apparent alliance campaigning against legislation to let businesses further exploit foreign workers here on high-tech work visas.

Labor isn’t unalterably opposed to letting those workers into the U.S. Instead, rules governing the numbers of those visas, the ability of workers holding them to change jobs, and requirements that prevailing wage rates be paid to those workers, should all be part of comprehensive immigration reform, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

Trumka was one of a panel of witnesses tackling the high-tech worker visa issue at a Mar. 17 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Senators were pondering an immigration bill by veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to raise the yearly number of such H-1B visas.

Businesses use the visas supposedly to bring in workers, especially high-tech workers, from abroad. But under current rules, they’re supposed to bring in the foreign workers only if they can’t find U.S. workers for vacant jobs. The U.S. issues some 165,000 H1-B visas yearly, and high-tech firms are lobbying for more.

The hearing showed, however, that firms routinely abuse the visas, to import lesser- trained foreign workers, especially from India and China, have U.S. workers train them, and then fire the U.S. workers in favor of the trainees. For high-tech firms, the difference in pay is up to $40,000 — $110,000 for a native-born worker; $70,000 for a foreign-born worker-each.

That train-and-fire scenario, repeated over and over, most recently involving 800-900 workers, all IBEW members, at Southern California Edison (SCE), irked committee members of both parties. It also led Trumka to say that lack of comprehensive immigration reform, including a solution to the H-1B visa exploitation problem, is one reason “the rules are rigged against working families.”

“We do not support the high-skill visa provisions as stand-alone legislation,” he added.

“When employers hire H-1Bs and, with a wink and a nod,” have native U.S. workers train them, then fire the U.S. workers, “and then they fire the H-1Bs when they start to organize, something is wrong,” Trumka added.

In the last Congress, the AFL-CIO was involved, almost daily in drafting and lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform, including a compromise solution to the H-1B problem. The Senate passed the compromise. Republican leaders of the House killed it.

Other unionists, not at the session, also chimed in against the abuse of the H1-B visas. It also illustrated the odd coalition: Staffers for right-wing Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., distributed unionists’ statements, from IBEW, the Communications Workers, the Society of Professional Employees in Engineering in Aerospace, AFSCME, the Professional and Technical Engineers and the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees.

“Approximately 70 percent of SCE’s information technology work will shift overseas. About 20 percent of the jobs that remain will be done by foreigners holding H-1B visas,” the excerpt of IBEW President Ed Hill’s testimony said.

“Many of the Americans slated to be laid off are being forced to train their H-1B replacements…much like forcing a condemned prisoner to dig his own grave before execution.”

Forcing the U.S. workers to train their H1-B replacements “has become rampant in this industry and problematic in many other industries as well,” said another statement in Sessions’ list, from IBEW Local 47 Business Manager Patrick Lavin. His local represents Southern Cal Edison workers.

“The overwhelming majority of H1-B workers are paid well below the market wage” of a native-born high-tech worker with the same qualifications added Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory Junemann. With most H1-B visa holders paid “entry-level” wages in those high-tech fields, “then that job does not require exceptional ability and thousands of qualified local workers are available,” Junemann added.

And in February, “workers at IBM Dubuque (Iowa) lost their jobs as their work was offshored to India,” said Lee Conrad, national coordinator for Alliance@IBM, CWA Local 1701, which has tried for years to organize and represent workers at “Big Blue.” The latest U.S. group losing their jobs numbered 900, he said.

“Those tech workers are now in the unemployment line as Congress seeks to increase the use of guest workers by U.S. corporations. This is outrageous and needs to cease… Furthermore, no company doing business in the U.S. should be allowed to hire guest workers while terminating U.S. workers,” Conrad added.

All this should be solved, Trumka warned, only as part of comprehensive immigration reform, including reform to end employer visa abuses. Any new immigration law “should unambiguously state it is illegal to replace an American worker with an H!-B worker,” he said.

At the end of the session, it was apparent that Hatch’s high-tech visa bill was in deep trouble, if not dead, despite support from business lobbies, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Even one of his cosponsors, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said during the hearing the measure should not come up as stand-alone legislation.

And, sounding like someone from the other side of the political spectrum, Sessions declared: “We don’t have to yield to these moguls. They want higher profits for themselves and lower pay for their workers.”

Photo: Richard Trumka.  |  AP


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C.   Gruenberg has been editor-in-chief of PAI since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for the Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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