Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A New Wrinkle on an Old Story

Citizen Carrie at Brilliant at Breakfast has an extensive post on H-1B visas called ”The Never-Ending Post, or, Government and Business Leaders Work 24/7 To Keep Americans Away From High Tech Jobs.” Here’s a sample:

As reported earlier, Microsoft's Bill Gates testified in front of Congress on March 12, 2008 by reading off his list of demands for the high tech industry. The crux of his speech is that he claims that we are not graduating enough students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills, and businesses are forced to hire workers from overseas to fill all of the job openings. (And, oh, by the way, the tech industry can pay these foreign workers less money.)

From near the end of the post:

Finally, on April 1, 2008 (what a busy day!), Senators Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to the top 25 companies who received approvals for H-1B (specialty workers) and L-1 (intra-company) visas for 2007, asking for detailed information on how the visas are being used. The purpose of the letter is to determine if "....these programs, as currently structured, are facilitating the outsourcing of American jobs."

The letter is five pages long and asks 11 questions, with each question subdivided into multiple parts. Here are sample questions (#7, page 3):

• For each of the last five fiscal years, how many employees have you terminated outside of the United States?

• For each of the last five fiscal years, how many employees have you terminated inside of the United States?

• How many of these employees were U.S. citizens?

• Did H-1B visa holders replace or take over the job responsibilities of any of these terminated employees?

• Would you support legislation prohibiting all employers from displacing an American worker with a H-1B visa holder? Please explain.

I'm not sure how large a problem this is, and would like to see honest responses to Durbin and Grassley's letter.

I’ll also recommend for the umpteenth time this installment from a New York Times Pulitzer-winning series on race from 2000, ”At a Slaughterhouse, 
Some Things Never Die,” by Charles LeDuff.

Both stories center a great deal on foreign workers in the United States. In Carrie’s post, it ‘s foreign workers with Ph.Ds and H-1B visas. In the NYT piece, it’s mostly Mexican illegal immigrants doing tough, dangerous manual labor in a slaughterhouse. Both sets of foreign workers are just looking for jobs, and I think it’s very important to avoid backlash against them. They’re not the issue. At issue is the companies involved. The specifics differ, but it sure seems like a very old story of exploitation. The H-1B visa holders will work for less, especially if they’re worried they’ll be kicked out of the country. Similarly, the slaughterhouse uses illegal immigrants in large part because they’re afraid to unionize. The United States is an immigrant nation, but currently immigrating legally or becoming naturalized can be a long and difficult process. That needs reform. Meanwhile, in their pursuit of cheaper labor, these companies are taking actions with potentially adverse consequences to the country as a whole. The extent and nature of that damage may be debated, but given the realities of global economies these days (and that the richest 2% in the world own half the world’s wealth), it's a subject that bears investigating.

As I commented over at the post, what's especially interesting here is that during the Cold War, the U.S. used to subsidize science scholarships and the like, the better to produce Americans who could help defeat those dangerous Ruskies and all. Now, the dangers of competing with foreign nations in terms of economics and innovation is the far greater issue, but hmm, the solution is strikingly different. It's the clever marketing of a novel form of an old story of exploitation. It also fits in with a larger picture of large corporations, domestic and multinational, as feudal entities with little to no allegiance to their home country (or countries). If you read David Cay Johnston's latest book, Free Lunch, taxpayer money is actually going to subsidize large companies going into smaller towns and crushing smaller, local (and previously successful) businesses. That's a really "free market," huh? Ask not what this company can do for the American people… ask how American taxpayers can help out this company.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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