US worker visa programme comes under fire

Two US IT workers told a House of Representatives committee yesterday that they were fired by their employers and replaced with...

Two US IT workers told a House of Representatives committee yesterday that they were fired by their employers and replaced with cheaper labour brought to the US under a worker visa programme designed to fill jobs needing special skills.

Patricia Fluno, a programmer from Orlando, said she and about 14 other employees of Siemens Information and Communications Networks were laid off in mid-2002 and forced to train their replacements from India.

"We lost our jobs and we had to train our replacements so there would be little interruption to Siemens," Fluno told the committee. "This was the most humiliating experience of my life."

A Siemens representative did not return a phone call seeking comment on Fluno's testimony.

The L-1 visa programme, which allows companies to transfer their foreign employees with special knowledge of the company or managerial or executive skills to the US. Lawmakers called for limits on the number of L-1 visas granted each year and new rules that would allow enforcement against abuses of the programme, which is often used to fill technology jobs.

"America is in danger of losing that level of prosperity which allows us to work as an agent for positive change in the rest of the world," said committee chairman Henry Hyde.

"... Are we being lax in the 'off-shoring' of American jobs, often facilitated by 'in-shore' training first given to L visa holders right here in the United States, so they can take new skills - and American jobs - home with them?"

The lone voice defending the programme during the hearing said no evidence exists of widespread abuse. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said abusers of the programme should be prosecuted, but he feared changes to L-1 rules would trigger a trade war that would hurt US IT companies, which export more IT products than are imported into the US.

Miller called the programme a "critical tool" for US IT companies needing to fill critical jobs. US IT companies often prosper by bringing in specialists, resulting in more jobs for US workers, he argued.

He also called for a better definition of the "specialised knowledge" needed by many L-1 applicants, because some companies may have defined the category too broadly. An applicant is supposed to have specialised knowledge of the company's products, service, research, equipment, or other functions or advanced knowledge of the company's processes and procedures.

The visa programme has a five-year limit on employees with specialised skills staying in the US and a seven-year limit on executives. But unlike its cousin, the H-1B visa programme, Congress has not limited the number of L-1 visas granted each year, and the number has grown from just over 75,000 in 1992 to more than 328,000 in 2001, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

 The ITAA estimates that about 121,000 new L-1 visa holders entered the US in 2001.

Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, agreed that the definition of "specialised knowledge" is too broad, but he wanted additional changes. He called for the House to support the L-1 Nonimmigrant Reform Act, which would require L-1 workers to be paid the prevailing wage and would prohibit L-1 workers from displacing US workers.

The bill, one of at least three pieces of legislation before Congress that are intended to reform the L-1 programme, would also allow fines of up to $1,000 for each violation of L-1 rules.

Lantos accused some US companies of using the L-1 visa to drastically lower wages. "What we are dealing with is high-tech indentured servitude," Lantos said. "We are dealing not only with a loophole of gigantic proportions, but also a scandal of gigantic proportions. It's up to the Congress to rectify the situation, and I fully anticipate we shall."

Representative Brad Sherman, another California Democrat, also called for a tax of $2,000 to $3,000 per month paid by companies for each L-1 worker employed, saying that the money could pay for investigations into L-1 misuse.

Programmer Sona Shah, a former employee of outsourcing service provider ADP Wilco, agreed with Lantos that abuses in the L-1 programme exist. She accused her former employer of hiring Indian workers for a fraction of US wages while declining to give work to US employees in its New York City office.

Shah, fired in April 1998, and a former coworker from India are now involved in a lawsuit against ADP Wilco, a subsidiary of Automatic Data Processing.

"This is not an issue of Indians versus Americans," said Shah, who was born in India but is a US citizen. "This is not about being anti-Indian or anti-immigration. This is about reforming corporate abuse of unregulated visa programmes that are out of control."

A representative of ADP Wilco declined to comment on Shah's testimony.

The ITAA's Harris called the stories from Shah and Fluno "isolated cases".

"We believe the program is fundamentally sound," he added. "If companies have violated the law ... then they should have the book thrown at them."

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

Read more on IT legislation and regulation