By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org
Expanding a controversial visa program as part of immigration reform, the Obama administration has already rewarded participating businesses that underpay and “handcuff” foreign-born workers.
Technology companies are taking advantage of the H1B visa program by flouting the definition of the legally required wage, says Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.
“Firms use the visas to acquire cheap labor, saving about 20 percent in an apples-to-apples comparison — young foreign workers versus young Americans — and as much as 50 percent for hiring young H1B visa holders instead of older Americans,” Matloff said.
A National Research Council report, commissioned by Congress, confirmed that underpayment of technology visa holders was an industrywide practice.
In a recent notorious case, one Silicon Valley firm admitted paying eight migrant programmers $1.21 an hour, working them for more than 120 hours a week.
“U.S. companies also abuse the green-card process, which renders a foreign worker immobile for the several years during which the green-card approval is pending,” Matloff said. “The employer doesn’t want engineers leaving for a competitor during an urgent project.”
In a practice called “handcuffing,” the migrant worker is prevented from moving around to find the best salary. It’s perfectly legal under the H1B laws.
At the urging of technology companies, Obama plans to double the number of H1B visas as part of his immigration-reform package.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others tech giants contend they cannot find sufficient numbers of homegrown programmers. California Gov. Jerry Brown has echoed those complaints and wants H1B caps lifted.
Matloff said he doesn’t buy the argument, and asserts that issuing more H1Bs will only turn the screws tighter on U.S. workers.
“Wages are flat. There is no shortage (of workers),” Matloff told Watchdog.org.
The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Washington – under Republican and Democratic administrations — is complicit in high-tech wage-shaving schemes that smack of indentured servitude.
“The federal government has awarded contracts and other benefits worth nearly half a billion dollars since 2000 to technology labor brokers and tech firms cited for violating (H1B) laws,” the CIR report stated.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense were among agencies that have looked past these violations or did not check the record.
“If taxpayers knew about this, they would be apoplectic,” said Leslie Paige, vice president of policy and communications for Citizens Against Government Waste.
Now Obama is opening the floodgates.
“The president is prepared to increase the current 65,000 H1B visas handed out per year to more than 155,000 (foreign nationals) if they are studying for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) degrees. Emerging details also glean that tech majors will be eligible for citizenship, including their spouses,” according to news reports previewing Thursday night’s announcement.
Such proposals have been rejected by Congress.
“All that needs to be done is set a realistic value of the prevailing wage. Proposals have been made to define it at the 75th percentile of wages in the given occupation,” Matloff said, countering Obama and the tech companies.
“This would reflect the employers’ claims that the H1Bs either have rare skill sets or are extraordinarily talented. Then the number of H1Bs would plummet.
“We would never come even close to filling the (H1B) quotas,” he predicted. “Of course, this is a nonstarter politically.”
David North, a policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the AFL-CIO could help break the stalemate between Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress.
“It strikes me as a perfect opportunity for the union leadership to break out of their slumber and win one for their cause,” North told Watchdog.org.
“If the organizing were initially concentrated on IT people working on government contracts, it would give the organizers extra leverage to bring about better wages and working conditions for the H1Bs involved,” he said.
“Such a movement would make employers less enthusiastic about H1B, and perhaps lessen the pressures to expand the program, which would have the pleasant side effect of opening some jobs for U.S. workers, and raising wages for everyone in this prosperous industry.”
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward