Labor Dept. plans H-1B probe -- one that could have an impact

The U.S. Department of Labor plans to investigate whether H-1B workers can be used to replace U.S. IT workers, according to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala). Both lawmakers have been leading a call for a probe of the controversial program.

Their comments Thursday about the Labor Department's plans come at a time when many IT workers are simmering with outrage and fury over their replacement by foreign workers on H-1B visas. Until very recently, the practice has been largely ignored by the U.S. government.

The Labor Department move follows an earlier request by 10 U.S. lawmakers to look into the displacement of IT workers at Southern California Edison (SCE). The utility hired two India-based IT services firms, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, for the job. Both firms are large users of the H-1B visa. Approximately 500 workers were displaced by the utility, most of them through layoffs.

In a joint statement, Durbin and Sessions said: "A number of U.S. employers, including some large, well-known, publicly-traded corporations, have laid off thousands of American workers and replaced them with H-1B visa holders. To add insult to injury, many of the replaced American employees report that they have been forced to train the foreign workers who are taking their jobs. That's just plain wrong and we'll continue to press the administration to help solve this problem."

Initially, Labor officials told the senators that the department couldn't initiate an investigation in the absence of a complaint by an employee. It now has at least one complaint by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 47, which was made public by Bright Future Jobs, a group that represents tech workers and advocates for H-1B reforms.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at Howard University, and a researcher on offshore outsourcing, said if the Labor Department finds a violation in H-1B use, it has the authority to bar a company from the program for a certain period of time. Taking that kind of action "would send shockwaves through the whole outsourcing industry."

Conversely, said Hira, "if they find no violations, I think we would conclude that the program works contrary to everything that everybody claims" and that companies can replace U.S. workers with impunity without violating the law. "That would show that the program is riddled with loopholes," he said.

The IT workers at SCE aren't represented by a union, but the union made the case that its workers are affected by the offshoring of the IT workers.

In its letter, the IBEW local said that many members "are dissatisfied with the technical support services provided by their replacements," and said that the "continued use of these replacement IT employees will therefore jeopardize the work of the employees it represents."

The use of foreign labor at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has generated similar angst, but wasn't cited in the Senate letter. Meanwhile, Disney ABC Television, another division of the larger Disney company, decided just this week to rescind IT layoffs it had planned.

That decision may be a possible reaction to recent attention the issue has been getting.


Patrick Thibodeau

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