Inhumane Resources: Putting Profits before People in the H-1B Visa Program

By: Elizabeth Lyon

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.  

The United States H-1B visa program sparks controversy because most U.S. workers agree it lowers their wages and labor protections, but most U.S. employers believe importing foreign workers is a necessary business practice. H-1B workers are extremely vulnerable to abusive employment practices because they can only stay in the U.S. as long as they keep their jobs. If a company adopts inhumane resource practices in the workplace and its corporate culture, then all its workers suffer. The U.S. should protect all workers by increasing transparency requirements on corporations, by limiting work hours to discourage abuse of addictive stimulants, and by guaranteeing a level playing field between H-1B workers and their U.S. counterparts.

Under the H-1B program, 85,000 visas are awarded each year, allowing U.S. employers to hire certain workers from other countries for a period of up to six years. An estimated 70% of H-1B workers are from India, with most working in the technology industry.

Last year, the U.S. government approved 2,362 H-1B visas for companies seeking to employ foreign workers in Arkansas (including both initial and continuing approvals). Of these visa approvals, two-thirds (1,522) were awarded to Walmart, Arkansas’ primary employer of H-1B workers. Click here to view a pie chart of 2020 H-1B visa approvals in Arkansas, sorted by NAICS code.

Many of the H-1B workers in the second-largest category (“Technical Services”) also work at Walmart headquarters in Bentonville. They park their cars a little farther away than the Walmart employees do because they are technically employed by companies like Tata Consultancy Services, which is located across the street from the Walmart home office. The AFL-CIO has sharply criticized Walmart for its practice of outsourcing IT work to H-1B contractors who, according to Tata’s former Vice President Phiroz Vandrevala, have historically earned 20-25 percent less than U.S. citizens doing the same work.

Imagine you are an H-1B worker at Walmart or one of its information technology contractors. You are assigned a pager so you can be “on-call” 24 hours a day. Since your choice is between carrying the pager and being deported, you carry the pager. Unlike your colleagues who are U.S. citizens, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and you will be deported if you are laid off. To protect yourself, you must make yourself indispensable to the company. Your corporate health insurance provides access to addictive stimulants, so you visit the company’s preferred doctor and start working 80 hours per week. You have doubled your value to the company, but at what cost?

Now imagine you are a U.S. citizen working as a software engineer alongside Indian H-1B workers at the Walmart home office in Bentonville. How do you compete? Since software engineers earn more than $60,000 per year, Walmart does not have to offer these jobs to U.S. citizens before hiring from overseas. Half your team is composed of vulnerable workers who cannot afford to refuse any request. These teammates are at their desks before your children are even out of bed. If you want to build a successful career, what must you do to distinguish yourself as a dedicated, competent professional in this corporate culture? Do you, too, need addictive stimulants to make it possible? Will you ever see your kids again?

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the U.S. government attempted to reform the H-1B visa program with administrative changes. However, critics of these changes believe they “serve only to intimidate and silence workers who fear their temporary visas will be cancelled,” thereby increasing the potential for the abuse of all workers in an increasingly exploitative corporate culture.

To stop the harm caused by our current H-1B visa program, the U.S. must require greater transparency from H-1B employers regarding how many H-1B workers are in the U.S. at any time. The U.S. must guarantee equal treatment for all workers by extending unemployment benefits to cover H-1B workers, by issuing H-4 visas to the spouses and children of H-1B workers, and by imposing a healthy limit on the number of hours an employee may work per week. Finally, we must invest in evidence-based, therapeutic approaches to treating addiction. Empowering H-1B workers to travel without fear of exploitation and abuse gives employers a broader, more competitive selection of applicants to choose from, while protecting the health, wages, and employment rights of all workers, including U.S. citizens.

Posted in: Legal Comentary

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