Like a lot of American corporations that made mind-boggling profits over the last few decades, the Microsoft, IBM and Cisco technology companies have abandoned their own citizen workforce to exploit foreign workers. But this isn’t happening in some far off sweat shop, this outsourcing is happening right on American soil.
In this case, corporate power, channeled through high-paid lobbyists and fat campaign contributions, strong-armed elected officials into passing laws that surreptitiously squash the labor rights of both US citizens and foreign workers alike.
How these IT companies got away with this begins with a US visa named the H-1b. The visa was created in the early 1990s so US companies could hire foreign nationals with college degrees for up to six years of service. Foreigners began to apply en masse, and now, nearly two decades later, 600,000 are working in the country via the H-1b.
According to Gene A. Nelson, who wrote An American Scam: How Special Interests Undermine National Security with Endless ‘Techie’ Gluts, it was Microsoft founder Bill Gates who pushed and paid Washington the greatest to pass the H-1b visa law. Gates accomplished this by perpetuating a myth that America was facing a looming shortage of IT pros, scientists and engineers. Gates’ myth, states Nelson, earned Microsoft an extra $73 billion in profits between 1991 to 2005. Nearly all Microsoft H-1bs are paid a salary that’s far below the prevailing wage for their position and skill. Some critics estimate that out of the 600,000 H-1bs in the US, a third are being used by IT companies for cheap labor.
"The H-1b benefits many of the economic elite at the expense of the middle class," wrote Nelson. "The resultant labor gluts (caused by the H-1b) depresses wages and benefits, enhancing employer profitability."
Essentially, the H-1b visa is another corporate-government neoliberal creation to undermine the wages and rights of the working class, both citizen and non-citizen alike. In the end, it’s not an issue of foreign workers taking Americans’ jobs, but of corporations being allowed to undercut the workforce by pressuring the government into applying policies that hurt workers for the benefit of the corporate elite.
According to the National Science Foundation, over 600,000 science and engineering degrees are granted annually by American universities. Yet the US produces only 120,000 science and engineering jobs per year, and much less of late. Now add those numbers to the annual influx of 85,000 H-1bs (the annual allowed cap) and the NSF believes half a million Americans are losing their jobs to cheap foreign technical labor, while another half million Americans waste their science and engineering degrees.
At the same time, H-1b workers are suffering slave-like conditions. One such worker complained in a letter to a Maryland Circuit Court judge that, "since I was treated like a bonded slave, I didn’t have any alternative to leaving the company," which was suing him for breach of contract. Indeed, the H-1b visa law allows the holder to apply for US citizenship along as his corporate employer is the sponsor. H-1b recruiters boast this indentured servitude made for "remarkable loyalty" to the corporation.
No one wins in this situation where labor rights are squashed so behemoths like Microsoft can make yet more billions.
Rennie Sawade, a spokesperson for WashTech, says Seattle and other communities are still feeling the reverberations of H-1b visa bomb that Bill Gates and Washington dropped in the early 1990s. Seattle, says Sawade, is just one city where the H-1b visa has not only soured the careers of local tech and science professionals, but the community itself. "It has affected thousands in the Seattle region," he says. "This is certainly not helping the local economy and is contributing to many of the closings of the local shops and stores."
Seattle’s regional unemployment number is pushing 7 percent, and the number for the city itself might be 11.5 percent, as recently high-lighted by Business Week in its ranking of "America’s Unhappiest Cities." Seattle also this year watched one of its daily newspapers — publishing since the Civil War — bid adieu.
Foreign nationals, says Sawade, who are offered an H-1b job "are getting screwed too." He says they’re sold "a bill of goods," such as high American wages and the allure of the country itself, by H-1b "Body Shops" or recruiters. When they finally get here, that’s when reality strikes. In the Seattle region, he says it’s common to know an H-1b visa holder who lives in poverty-level housing, with many roommates, in a hard-scrabble neighborhood.
One question that Sawade asks is, how did both the American and foreign IT worker become undermined by a US visa? Sawade and other critics of the H-1b visa says heed the advice "Deep Throat" of President Nixon’s demise offered — follow the money.
In 2008, Microsoft paid nearly a dozen lobbying firms hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to produce 45 reports on immigration and submitted them to Congress for review, according to Open Secrets, a website that tracks the influence of lobbyists and campaign contributions on US politics. Many of the reports had a simple subject heading: "H-1b Visa Program, Workforce Issues." The 45 reports ranked Microsoft number one for 2008 when it came to immigration studies for Congress. The second-highest number given to Congress was 11 — by the National Immigration Forum, which is an organization that actually deals with the issue of immigration.
Gates, currently the world’s richest man, also has tremendous influence over some of the most powerful institutions on the planet. In March of 2007, he was allowed to speak to a US Senate committee for two hours. During this time, he called for an "infinite" number of H-1bs to be allowed into the US.
During his run for the White House, President Obama called for a temporary rise in the H-1b cap. Obama’s stance may be surprising to some for a president who promised hope, change and putting Americans back to work. Opens Secrets reveals that Microsoft gave Obama just over $700,000 in 2008, while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was given $73,000. In fact, since 1990, Microsoft has contributed close to $20 million to federal office holders, according to Open Secrets, which calls the software company "one of the biggest contributors in Washington."
Thanks to the initiative of companies like Microsoft, workers are displaced from their home countries to work for poor wages abroad, undercutting US labor while clearly concentrating the wealth into the hands of fewer individuals.
John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.