New York Times (Editorial)
June 16, 2016
There is no doubt that H-1B visas — temporary work permits for specially talented foreign professionals — are instead being used by American employers to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor. Abbott Laboratories, the health care conglomerate based in Illinois, recently became the latest large American company to use the visas in this way, following the lead of other employers, including Southern California Edison, Northeast Utilities (now Eversource Energy), Disney, Toys “R” Us and New York Life.
The visas are supposed to be used only to hire college-educated foreigners in “specialty occupations” requiring “highly specialized knowledge,” and only when such hiring will not depress prevailing wages. But in many cases, laid-off American workers have been required to train their lower-paid replacements.
Lawmakers from both parties have denounced the visa abuse, but it is increasingly widespread, mainly because of loopholes in the law. For example, in most instances, companies that hire H-1B workers are not required to recruit Americans before hiring from overseas. Similarly, companies are able to skirt the rules for using H-1B workers by outsourcing the actual hiring of those workers to Tata, Infosys and other temporary staffing firms, mostly based in India.
Criticism of the visa process has been muted, and reform has moved slowly, partly because laid-off American workers — mostly tech employees replaced by Indian guest workers — have not loudly protested. Their reticence does not mean acceptance or even resignation. As explained in The Times on Sunday by Julia Preston, most of the displaced workers had to sign agreements prohibiting them from criticizing their former employers as a condition of receiving severance pay. The gag orders have largely silenced the laid-off employees, while allowing the employers to publicly defend their actions as legal, which is technically accurate, given the loopholes in the law.
The conversation, however, is changing. Fourteen former tech workers at Abbott, including one who forfeited a chunk of severance pay rather than sign a so-called nondisparagement agreement, have filed federal claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying they were discriminated against because of their ages and American citizenship. Tech workers from Disney have filed federal lawsuits accusing the company and two global outsourcing firms of colluding to supplant Americans with H-1B workers. Former employees of Eversource Energy have also begun to challenge their severance-related gag orders by publicly discussing their dismissals and replacement by foreign workers on H-1B and other visas.
Congressional leaders of both parties have questioned the nondisparagement agreements. Bipartisan legislation in the Senate would revise visa laws to allow former employees to protest their layoffs. Beyond that, what Congress really needs to do is close the loopholes that allow H-1B abuses.
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