By Paul E. Almeida, President, Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO
Guest worker programs are a sad chapter in America’s economic history. Edward R. Murrow’s award winning documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” about migrant, “bracero” guest workers detailed as much in the 1950s. Under H-1B, we have the modern day equivalent: a techno-bracero program. These workers are given false promises, ripped off by unscrupulous visa placement firms and immigration lawyers, under-compensated in both salary and benefits, and forced to work between sixty and eighty hours a week with no overtime protections. This is only a snapshot of a long list of abuses afflicting these indentured workers.
Although many, including the New York Times, have portrayed the H-1B visa as a stop on the way to “green card” status, in fact, H-1B, like other guest worker programs, was designed by Congress to be temporary. The original intent was to allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S. during periods of spot labor shortages. Those here under H-1B visas are expected to return to their home countries. Yet H-1B workers often feel entitled to attain permanent status when in fact they knew – or should have known – that their status was strictly temporary. Unfortunately, Congress extended this “temporary” program for up to six years, and provided few effective protections for American workers and those with green cards.
Some don’t believe that the economic interests of American workers should be protected, even when it comes to employment in their own country. Despite organized labor’s efforts, current regulations provide American workers little protection. The last expansion of the H-1B program in October 2000 coincided with the dot.com industry laying off thousands of high tech workers. Although expanding this program twice, Congress failed to require downsizing employers to keep U.S. workers before guest workers. Consequently, many U.S. workers were laid off while guest workers were kept.
There is no labor shortage. If there were, there would have been a sharp escalation in the salaries of information technology (IT) workers over the past few years. That hasn’t happened. The median wages of computer systems analysts and scientists rose from $918 to $1,009 a week between 1997 and 2001, an increase of only 9.8%. Women represent 44% of all operations and systems researchers and analysts, and their wages fell by almost 7% between 1997 and 2000. These figures do not indicate a shortage.
In addition, there is evidence of age discrimination against high tech workers. 1998 Census Department data showed unemployment rates for IT workers over age 40 were five times greater than for others in the same age group. And the industry has an abysmal record of hiring minorities. Currently, 3.5% of IT employees are Hispanic, while they represent about 11% of the U.S. population, and African Americans, who represent about 12% of the U.S. population, comprise some 7% of all IT employees. The expanded H-1B program has made it even more difficult for minorities to share in the economic rewards of IT and other professional work.
Industry has claimed that America’s colleges and universities are not producing enough IT workers, hence the need to expand and extend the H-1B program. The fact is that some 300,000 students are graduating each year with Bachelor’s, Master’s or doctoral degrees in the core disciplines that are critical to this industry — computer/information science, mathematics and engineering, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the Computing Research Association. At current graduation rates, the supply will exceed the Labor Department’s projections for job creation over the next several years. In addition, these statistics do not include the thousands of community college students who graduate with two-year, Associate degrees in IT disciplines, as well as other relevant education and certification programs. These talent pools are largely ignored by industry. The final 1999 report of the Governor’s Commission on Information Technology took the Commonwealth’s IT industry to task for not fully utilizing this source of qualified IT workers.
The number of U.S. graduates qualified to work in high tech will increase significantly in the next few years. An editor of Computerworld, said that by 1999, “enrollments had doubled or tripled at most leading IT programs”.
The bottom line is: the H-1B program is designed to supplant qualified American workers with expendable, lower paid foreign guest workers. As a result, average U.S. wages are suppressed in what has been our economy’s hottest sector. A special report commissioned by Congress under the National Academy of Sciences found that wage suppression was a direct result of the program. Roger Cooker, director of staffing at Texas Instruments – one of the nation’s largest high tech firms – told U.S. News and World Report (August 30, 1999) that H-1B workers are part of their strategy to suppress the wages of engineers and other high tech employees.
It is clear that guest worker programs remain a sad chapter in America’s economic life. When it comes to jobs in dot.com, well qualified, American workers continue to be replaced by guest workers. Fifty years later, the harvest of shame continues. I wonder what Edward R. Murrow would say about this situation?