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Visa program robs U.S. technology workers of jobs, dignity
Question of the Day
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Scott Kirwin clung to his computer programming job, but it was tough for him to relish his final assignment: training a group of workers from India who would replace him within a year.
“They called it ‘knowledge acquisition,’” the Wilmington, Del., resident said. “We got paid our normal salaries to train people to do our jobs. The market was so bad we couldn’t really do anything about it, so we taught our replacements.”
Laid off from a large investment bank in April, Mr. Kirwin, 36, sent out 225 resumes before landing a temporary position without benefits at a smaller bank and swallowing a 20 percent pay cut.
Mr. Kirwin is among a growing number of American technology workers training their foreign replacements — a humiliating assignment many say they assume unwittingly or reluctantly, simply to stay on the job longer or secure a meager severance package.
Their plight can be seen as an unintended consequence of the nation’s non-immigrant visa program — particularly the L-1 classification. The L-1 allows companies to transfer workers from overseas offices to the United States for up to seven years — ostensibly to familiarize them with corporate culture or to import workers with “specialized knowledge.”
It also lets companies continue paying workers their home country wage. Indian workers receive roughly one-sixth the hourly wage of the average American programmer, who makes about $60 per hour in wages and benefits.
Large technology companies say the L-1 also helps them staff offices in less-developed countries with workers who understand the needs of a global corporation. Some labor analysts say out-of-work programmers should stop complaining and focus on their own retraining, just like the Rust Belt assembly line workers whose factory jobs migrated to Mexico and Asia in the 1980s.
But unemployed tech workers contend that so many good jobs are going to places like India and China that honing their technical skills is futile. The research firm Gartner Inc. says one out of 10 technology jobs in the United States will move overseas by the end of next year.
“Once I figured out what was going on, I was disgusted,” said Kevin Sherman, a 47-year-old programmer and technical author from Worthington, Ohio, who was working for Manifest Corp., an information systems consulting firm in Upper Arlington, Ohio.
Mr. Sherman held on to his $62,000-per-year contract job while he taught several dozen Indian workers how to build and maintain computer databases in 1999 and 2000. He quit rather than take on his next assignment: repairing the newly trained foreigners’ personal computers. He has been unemployed for two years.
Nancy Matijasich, Manifest president and chief executive, said she no longer employs L-1 workers like those Mr. Sherman has trained, because the threat of the year 2000 bug has passed and the company has less need for programmers.
“There was a shortage of skills in the ‘90s,” Miss Matijasich said. “But we haven’t processed visas in a long time.”
The State Department issued 28,098 L-1 visas from October to March, the first half of fiscal 2003. That is an increase of nearly 7 percent from the same period in 2002.
But the number of L-1 workers in the United States is likely much higher, said Charlie Oppenheim, the State Department’s chief of immigrant visa control. Each L-1 lets a worker enter the United States multiple times over several years.
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