H-1B Visas and the Assault on the American Worker

VisaErik Loomis brought my attention to an article in The New York Times, Lawsuits Claim Disney Colluded to Replace US Workers With Immigrants. This is all about the H-1B visa. This is supposed to be a way for companies to get highly skilled workers that they just can’t find in the United States. It is most definitely not meant to be used to bring workers from other countries to replace existing workers. And so there are two class action lawsuits against Disney for doing just that.

I’ve written about H-1B visa a lot, because in my life, I’ve worked with a lot of people on H-1B visas. I have nothing against them — some I even counted as friends while I knew them and one I gave a guitar and instruction to. But they were neither super smart nor super knowledgeable about arcane subjects. They were just good, professional coders. There was nothing to distinguish them from the many good, professional coders here in the US except that they would work for a lot less money.

In the days of old, IBM didn’t expect to hire people with the “right skills.” They expected to hire smart young people, invest in them, and employ them for their entire careers.

What’s so annoying about the constant drum beat for more H-1B visas is that it is the same old scam. Business owners always say they can’t find qualified workers. What they actually mean is that they can’t find qualified workers for the crummy pay they offer. I remember back a few years, my father was aghast that an employer was complaining that he couldn’t find skilled workers would could do trigonometry and other things. How much was he offering? Fifteen dollars an hour with no benefits. That’s a $30,000 a year job. (As I recall, the guy was also upset that many of the workers he did get were fired because they insisted on their legal rights — things like breaks.)

What we are seeing with Disney is not at all surprising. And the truth is, it is no different than the way the H-1B visa is normally used. Other companies just aren’t as obvious about it. But does it really matter that a company has a 50-something coder who is now considered too expensive so it brings in a cheap Indian coder? How is that different from a company that pretends it can’t find qualified people in the first place? There really is no difference, and everyone in government and industry knows it. This is all “nod and wink” nonsense.

Last year I wrote, H-1B Visas Are a Scam to Keep Wages Low. In it, I talked about an actual criminal conspiracy: Steve Job’s deal with other Silicon Valley giants not to hire each other’s workers. Instead of making sure that workers were happy, the CEOs just made it impossible for a high tech professional to go from, say, Apple to Google. Employers already have the great advantage of a monopsony. They wanted to make it so that even the little wiggle room that employees had was removed. Effectively, they wanted to turn workers into serfs.

Sadly, Erik Loomis doesn’t really get what’s going on. He’s an academic and they get screwed over in a totally different way. But this isn’t about people having to train their replacements or even putting people out of work. This is about a systemic problem designed to keep wages down. The H-1B visa is just a tool in that regard.

Exactly who are these workers who have skills that the US lacks? We aren’t talking about letting Albert Einstein into the country here. In the days of old, IBM didn’t expect to hire people with the “right skills.” They expected to hire smart young people, invest in them, and employ them for their entire careers. But now we have a whole new way of thinking where having any job at all is considered some kind of privilege. So people go way into debt so that they can get those lauded “right skills.” And even if they happen to succeed in that, by their 50s, they will find that they are costing the company too much money and be replaced.

It’s disturbing. People like David Brooks and Charles Murray have spent decades talking about the decline of values in America. But they never touch the single most important area where values are lacking: the business world. If you want people to marry, have kids, and raise them properly, they first need a job they can depend upon. Well that is out of the question now because all that matters is next quarter’s profits and the bonuses of top management.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

21 thoughts on “H-1B Visas and the Assault on the American Worker

  1. Sometime in the 1970s the business managers decided they didn’t want to bother with labor since labor is the biggest costs and they wanted to reduce it as much as possible.

    It is literally no different then what happened prior to the Haymarket Riot and the unions getting laws passed for eight hour workdays and the employers laughing and saying “we ain’t changing squat.” Basically there was a tiny thirty year period of time when everyone was okay with things like unions for the most part because they understood what life was like without it. Then their kids grew up.

    • Yeah. I’ve also read that part of the problem now is that there is no living memory of a different life. People in 1900 remembered that their parents had farms, and even if their lives weren’t great, they at least had control.

      But I truly believe that if people vote, we really can change all that. There will be no John Galt strike. I even try to get conservatives to vote, but sometimes I think that’s a mistake. (Not that it matters: conservatives don’t listen to me.)

      • Oooh you are going to LOVE the ending of Small Gods and I cannot talk about it because I don’t want to spoil it!

        But if everyone voted in every election there might be a big difference in how Congress operates.

        • I know people who complain that people don’t pay attention to politics. My experience is that people who are not obsessed with politics, still take it quite seriously. Most of the people I know who don’t vote aren’t apathetic, but overworked. So I try not to be too hard on them. There’s a horrible feedback where the less people vote, the worse the lives of the poor get, and so the less they vote.

          • The *mumble mumble because I don’t want to shock you* thing I did yesterday had me discussing politics with some people and all of the men are libertarians who know nothing despite the fact that they could make an effort to know something even with their busy lives.

            I think it is the differences in communities.

  2. $15 an hour I’d kill for. $15 an hour plus the breaks mandated by law, I’d kill for and perform sideshow acts where I bite the heads off live pigeons. Then juggle the heads while balancing on a trapeze line and offer to do laundry for a year to some lucky audience member who paid one month of my health-insurance bill.

    $15 plus breaks is positively plush. We “unskilled” workers are dying out here, folks!

    • Wow. You make me feel bad. But you see, people tend to get things backwards. We always assume if you have a really hard job, you get paid more. At one time (with unions) that was largely true. But in general, the less difficult the work, the more they pay you for. It’s also like that Chris Rock routine about the difference between a job and a career. In my experience, if they pay you poorly, they also treat you badly.

      But don’t bite the heads off live pigeons. For one thing: I’m sure they don’t pay $15 an hour for that either.

      • It’s a sideshow act; the pigeons would only appear to be real.

        This is a real problem when we imagine how a better economy would work. You’d want people in the toughest jobs to be paid more. But you wouldn’t want people who only did those jobs for higher pay. I don’t know how to solve that problem, and since it’s not going to be a problem we have to face in my lifetime, I don’t have to know how to solve it.

        • I don’t actually see the problem. You aren’t talking about paying people millions to empty bed pans (forgive the metonymy). I also think that the kind of work you do really ought to be more like a 24 hour full-time week. But of course, we don’t do this. We create an underclass of desperate people who will literally kill themselves for a job. There needs to be some kind of minimum income — however you do it. People like me really can easily work 50 hours a week. We shouldn’t be paid extra for it. People should be paid less for jobs they like. (Or at least jobs that they don’t hate.)

          • A shorter week is a good idea. It keeps the good workers from burning out and limits the harm bad ones can do.

  3. Any time I hear about a shortage of any type of worker, I see a giant red flag. There are never long term shortages of workers. It is ironic that conservatives use the overly simple, Econ 101 models to argue against the minimum wage.

    At the same time, the simple and standard Econ 101 models for labor supply actually do apply in the real world when we are talking about worker shortages. Econ 101 is correct that in the long run, there are not shortages of any kind of worker. Either people use less of something or prices (wages in this case) increase and entice more supply (more workers in this case). Simple economics is great when it suits the business community’s purposes but the much more realistic and reliable economic models are ignored when it does not help their narrative.

    When we are talking about teachers, butchers, farm workers, computer coders, nurses, whatever, there cannot be a shortage in the long run because wages are supposed to rise. The business community wants to cheat and increase supply by importing Mexican and Indian workers and we absolutely need to stop this from happening.

    It is also depressing because in every online discussion about college and student loans, there will always be a brigade of older folks (who went to college back when tuition was cheap or free) who say that young people deserve low wages and lots of debt because they all studied “underwater basket weaving.” The solution is to either study a STEM subject or go to trade school (which both cost a lot of money and leave poorer students in debt). The problem is that the game is rigged and whether we are talking about engineers are dry wall hangers, the business elites make sure to bring in foreign scabs wherever and whenever wages actually start to increase.

    • Nicely put. Thanks!

      There is a shortage of trained industrial workers right now. For good reason. Students don’t want to spend two years at technical school learning a skill that can be outsourced at any moment. And no adult industrial worker will tell a teenager, “learn to do this job, it’s a solid career.” The same way we’re starting to see a shortage of teachers. Those professions have been screwed over so badly, it’d take decades to get them back, if we could at all.

    • Dean Baker has a standard joke about their being a “skills shortage” because companies can’t find managers who understand that you must raise wages to get better workers.

      You’re right: it’s all one sided. We have a business press that could not possibly be more determined to provide the official corporate line.

      And the thing about STEM fields is that it’s nonsense anyway. It’s a crap-shoot regardless. Whenever anyone tells me they are studying computer science I cringe. Don’t they know there are Romanian programmers who speak English, and program as well as any I’ve ever worked with, and who work for about a quarter what they do here? What’s more: it’s turning our civilization into the most boring thing in the world. I do not want to live in a world where the big topic of conversation is Ruby on Rails. (Not that computer science really has much to do with programming; the science is actually fascinating.)

      Regardless, I have a STEM BS, MS, and PhD. And all I really got was a trained mind. And I would have gotten that if I had studied Latin or art history. But that’s the thing: businesses do not want people who can think and learn; they want cogs they can treat just like any other resource they use.

  4. Frank, I think it would be swell if you could link up with some other bloggers and produce a book on declining conservative values. You’ve noted many times that those that yell loudest about the decline of these values a) often fail to exemplify those values as individuals, and b) are perniciously selective in their complaints.

    Unlike some leftists, I believe there is much of value in many of these so-called conservative dictates. It’s high time for the other side to show who really stands for hard work, caring, self-respect, and respect of the other. I think maybe there would be a receptive audience.

    • That would make a good book. Sounds more like something Eric Alterman would write. I would like a book project but I feel perpetually tired these days.

      But I’ll keep it in mind. Who would the other blogger be?

      • I didn’t actually have anyone in particular in mind, but this is the sort of thing that needs to be written by people who grew up in relatively modest circumstances, who actually knew conservatives growing up. Someone who watched, as I did, conservatives support a lean welfare state when conservative politicians supported a lean welfare state, who started to sound like libertarians when the conservative politicians started sounding like libertarians, and who became raving Muslim-haters when the conservative politicians became raving Muslim-haters.

        • Although if you look back, you will see that there is a certain consistency: about a third of the conservative movement since before I was born have been crazy. It was the John Birch Society then; it’s the Tea Party now. What is really interesting is that this minority of the (now wholly) Republican Party has managed to shape it in its own image. But I keep coming back to the line from All the President’s Men, “These are not very bright guys.” I mean the Republican elites. Of course, it is also true that these are really shortsighted guys. They don’t seem to care about the long term. The next election is all that matters.

          • The zealots always are with us, but until recently the elephants tried to hide them away from public view. They were an embarrassment. Now, it’s the mainstream of grassroots party membership and people have to ramp up the crazy to get support there.

            Part of me wants to believe that the expression of really extreme positions arises from the fact that they know at heart they will lose in the end. The last-ditch supporters of Apartheid saw its passing as an attack on them they said, and they pledged to fight to the end. They did not and now are forgotten, thank goodness.

            • That’s a good point. The south said they would do anything to keep segregation. In the end, I think most of the bitter-enders are all talk. I believe if you told the holdouts in Oregon that there was a drone overhead and it would blow up the building in one hour, they would all come out 55 minutes later. Not that I’m suggesting we do that — just making a point.

  5. People like David Brooks and Charles Murray have spent decades talking about the decline of values in America. But they never touch the single most important area where values are lacking: the business world. If you want people to marry, have kids, and raise them properly, they first need a job they can depend upon.

    Also, you would think that households with dependent children and discretionary income are the bread and butter of companies like Disney. Such a tragedy of the commons. You read in the papers about mass layoffs followed by the share price of the perpetrator going up, and yet the layoffs themselves lead to tighter purse strings in the larger economy.

    Also, this Disney, which apparently is lobbying hard to lower American labor law to global standards, is this the same Disney that is also lobbying hard to raise global intellectual property law to American standards?

    It is all so confusing.

    • Ha! Excellent point!

      I think the issue here is the paradox of thrift: individual companies benefiting (in the short term), only to make the economy smaller overall. It’s a huge problem generally with capitalism. Hershey, PN didn’t have a Great Depression because Milton Hershey kept spending. We used to all agree (Dems and Reps) that in an economic downturn, the government would do that. But not anymore — at least as long as there is a Democrat in the White House!

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