January 26, 2005 4:48 PM PST

Labor group: Techs tops at courting foreign workers

Technology companies were among the U.S. businesses that most aggressively sought to make foreign workers permanent U.S. residents last year, a labor group charged Wednesday.

The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, citing government data, said software giant Microsoft pursued a key approval in the immigration process for 1,203 foreign workers, more than twice the number of any other U.S. company. Oracle, Intel and IBM also were among the top 10 employers seeking the approvals, according to the alliance, also known as WashTech.

Those attempts amount to a slap in the face of the American worker, given the relatively high unemployment rate among techies and continued job losses in the field, said Marcus Courtney, WashTech's president.

The question, Courtney said, is "are employers taking advantage of immigrants to saturate the labor market and drive down wages for employees?"

Neither Oracle nor IBM immediately offered comment on the WashTech claims. A Microsoft representative said the company doesn't provide the relevant data publicly and hadn't verified WashTech's numbers. But the company indicated in a statement that it does "aggressively hire domestic workers." But, the statement said, "to remain competitive in the global marketplace...Microsoft and other IT firms also need access to professional talent from around the world."

Gail Dundas, a spokeswoman for semiconductor titan Intel, could not immediately confirm WashTech's data. But she said the kind of foreign workers Intel hires in the United States typically have graduate degrees and focus on specific skill areas such as optics and advanced lithography. She said those kinds of skills cannot be quickly picked up by an unemployed software programmer. "We first do a vigorous search for a qualified U.S. worker," she said.

WashTech's information concerns a piece of the immigration process known as permanent labor certification, which requires an employer to show it was unable to fill a job with an American worker.

The U.S. Labor Department, which oversees the process, could not immediately confirm WashTech's data.

Foreigners historically have earned a large percentage of technology-related doctorates in the United States. According to national data, foreign students with temporary visas accounted for 55 percent of the 5,265 engineering PhDs last year.

But WashTech's Courtney argued that Intel's claim of not being able to find qualified U.S. workers doesn't hold water given the number of out-of-work technology professionals ready to do the jobs or who could be trained. "It defies the economic facts on the ground," he said.

According to U.S. Labor Department data, an average of 8,000 electrical and electronics engineers were unemployed last year. The unemployment rate for electrical and electronics engineers averaged 2.2 percent last year, compared with 1.3 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate for computer software engineers averaged 3.3 percent in 2004, compared with 1.7 percent in 2000.

Permanent residency is one way U.S. employers can bring foreigners to work in the country. Another method is the H-1B visa, which lets skilled foreigners work in the United States for up to six years. Some employers have imported workers with an H-1B and then sponsored those employees for permanent residency--which is often referred to as getting a green card. Dundas said in some cases H-1B visa holders at Intel are sponsored by the company for permanent residency.

The H-1B visa program was revised and expanded late last year. It remains controversial.

According to WashTech, for the year ended Sept. 30, Oracle pursued labor certifications for 447 foreign workers, while Intel made the request for 297 and IBM did so for 168. The information also shows that the Labor Department certified 529 workers for Microsoft, 248 for Oracle, 143 for Intel and 96 for IBM.

Courtney said the fact that so many workers were certified by the Labor Department indicates the government isn't doing enough to protect American workers. "The Department of Labor acts as a rubber stamp," he said.

A Labor Department official did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What's the root cause?
I was reading an article on CNET News.com that WashTech, a tech labor group, found that tech companies were one of the largest seekers of foreign workers imported into the US. What I didn't get from the article and it doesn't seem clear is are these workers receiving significantly lower wages than American workers? It seems they aren't or else that would be a major talking point. Rather they contend that this lowers the wage by creating a surplus of workers. Yet some of these companies like Intel contend that the people being sought are not available in the US and are not easily re-trained. These seem reasonable and I just can't see a company spending thousands extra required to bring these people here only to discriminate against American workers. I'm not going to say every company is completely innocent but we need to look at the root cause. We need to focus on increased education which seems obvious from this article as it talks about how many of these workers are getting PhDs while in the US. If we focus on the cause of the problem we can resolve it. However if we don't anything to change we will continue get the same results every time.

In the words of Stephen R Covey:

If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting.

One additional point I would like to make here is that these workers come here and contribute much of what they make to our economy. They come here and spend money on food, shelter, electronics, and more. All of these drive our economy and help to increase levels of employment in the US. It is important that we work to drive a balance here and I think that is what the controls setup on importation of workers does. We need alot of changes in the country but a more controlling and powerful government is not one of them.

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Posted by russ960 (22 comments )
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Rather poor argument
Your conclusion that the foreign workers are not being paid less
than their qualified American counterparts is based on a
very weak argument. You assert that wage imbalances
must not be an issue simply because they were not mentioned in
the article. That's really thin proof, to say the least. The mere
absence of data proves nothing.

The reason corporations seek out foreign labor (whether via
outsourcing or insourcing) is simple: foreign labor is cheaper
and, therefore, it reduces their costs. Nothing magical here.
Nothing difficult to understand. No need for deep investigations.

I have first hand experience. When a company I worked for laid
off 14 out of group of 30 engineers, 12 were American citizens.
Of the 16 that remained, 13 were foreign workers on H-1B visas.
The salaries for the laid off workers ranged from $85,000 to
$105,000. The average salary of the workers they kept was
$60,000. All but two of the remaining workers were under thirty
years old. All of the laid off workers were over thirty-five.

I find it strange that you think that having the federal
government determine who and how many people are
allowed to emigrate to the US amounts to "a more controlling
and powerful government". Who should determine the rate
immigration if not the federal government? Are you suggesting
we "privatize" the department of immigration, i.e. let the
corporations determine the rate of immigration? Should there be
no constraints on immigration?

I'm aware these immigrants contribute to the economy, but they
also get to take advantage of all the infrastructure that I paid
for...all the things that make the US a great place to live.

So, to a certain extent they are getting a free ride. I've been
busting my butt for 27 years (since age 15) and have paid a
king's ransom in taxes. That means I paid for the roads they
drive on, they schools their kids attend, the firehouse that
protects their home and so forth. As such, I don't believe it is
too much to ask that immigration law be constructed such that it
doesn't place folks like me at an unfair disadvantage.

If US citizenship offers no advantages, what's the point of living
here? Why should I continue to pay taxes if my government is
bent on undermining my best interest and disregarding the fact
that I have contributed far more to the nation and it's economy
than some guy here on a work visa?
Posted by Jeff Lebowski 63 (33 comments )
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