I tossed and turned for half the night after reading this article. If I needed further reason to believe our country is going to hell in a hand basket, this is it. Here I’ll relate: (1.) A summary of the article; (2.) information on the H-1B Visa; and (3.) a case study of Tarvinder*, my mom’s former co-worker and roommate.
When Tarvinder told me last November that she’d be leaving Madison to work for Disney in Orlando, Florida, I was overjoyed for her. She’d been living in Madison for about five years and not only wanted a career change, but wanted warmer weather–similar to her native Punjab. It was shocking to discover that Tarvinder had been one of the H-1B workers who displaced 250 Disney IT employees last January.
The New York Times article focuses on a much smaller planned layoff at Disney’s offices in May, which, after delivering the bad news, the company suddenly rescinded. Disney’s plan had been for H-1B Visa holders–workers coming from abroad–to replace the current staff, as they’d done last winter.
Can you imagine training your replacement as a requirement for getting your severance package? Read Keith Barrett’s blog post about his own layoff from Disney, if you haven’t already. The only thing I would take issue with is that Keith attributed January’s mass lay-off to Disney’s new CIO, Tilak Mandadi, whereas I’m far more suspicious of long-term Disney CEO and president, Bob Iger.
Bob Iger is in a group called Partnership for a New American Economy, with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg, that lobbies hard for expansion of the H-1B Visa program. The group claims that:
“…high-skilled immigrants create jobs for U.S.-born workers in states across the country.”
Wait, what was that, Bob? The 250 workers you laid-off at Disney had to train their replacements? Wouldn’t that imply that they knew their jobs pretty darned well?
So, what is the H-1B Visa supposed to be used for? Is it meant as a system by which foreign workers on visas can displace their American citizen counterparts? According to the U.S. Department of Labor:
“The intent of the H-1B provisions is to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States.
The law establishes certain standards in order to protect similarly employed U.S. workers from being adversely affected by the employment of the nonimmigrant workers, as well as to protect the H-1B nonimmigrant workers.”
Now back to Tarvinder. She came to America early in the new millennium to attend graduate school in computer science, then signed with a contractor who, for a fee, found her a job. Tarvinder worked in several states, switching jobs and going abroad every few years to renew her visa. I met her when she joined my mother’s IT department and began renting our basement room.
Would I describe Tarvinder as happy? Not exactly. She Skyped her parents every night and felt perpetually unsettled in America, in spite of the fact that she made a decent salary–though one without benefits or job security. To say she wasn’t materialistic would be an understatement: she was more than willing to trade in roomier, luxurious accommodations for the sake of feeling “at home”: living in a basement room with no door.
Of course there were other factors that led to Tarvinder’s lack of satisfaction, but a point she often expounded upon was feeling as though her visa status–and therefore her life as she knew it–was at risk.
Before moving to Florida, Tarvinder came home one evening very upset. One of her favorite co-workers, also on an H-1B, had gone back to India for a visit. The Madison-based insurance company was still sponsoring his visa, but he had to renew some documentation in India, which took longer than expected. The company revoked his visa, leaving Tarvinder’s co-worker unemployed and stuck in India, while the company presumably hired a more available candidate. This is the shaky ground that workers like Tarvinder must navigate.
It’s clear who’s benefiting from the H-1B visa program: people like Bob Iger and the companies who act as middlemen for the foreign workers. But what’s the solution? Crackdown on employers using the visa for their own financial gain? Expand it? Or, as some have argued, cancel it altogether?
UPDATE 1/25/2016: Two former Disney tech employees have filed a lawsuit against Disney over their replacement by H-1B visa holders.
*Name has been changed to protect identity