- - Monday, February 29, 2016

Few punishments are more macabre that being forced to “dig your own grave.” That’s gallows humor for describing the business practice of requiring laid-off workers train their replacements or else — “or else” being losing their severance pay. But there’s nothing funny about coercing anyone to connive in his own destruction. American companies are abusing the nation’s visa system by using it to replace Americans with foreigners who will work for lower wages. It’s insult to decency and makes a mockery of the American dream.

High-tech companies, the chief abusers of both their employees and the visa program, complain the homegrown supply of college graduates trained in technical fields can’t keep up with the demand. As a remedy, the United States instituted the H-1B visa program, which allows foreign workers to work temporarily in the United States, usually for three years, in specialty occupations. But it’s clear that some of these companies are trading in current employees for cheaper ones. In 2014, the State Department approved 161,369 such H-1B visas.

In 2015, about 500 information technology employees at Southern California Edison were laid off, and were told they had to show the ropes to new hires recruited by contractors in India or lose their earned severance pay. The heat and noise of their justified anger reached Washington, where 10 members of the U.S. Senate last April asked the Justice Department and two other federal agencies to investigate. The government concluded there was no wrongdoing.

Last week, a former Disney employee named Leo Perrero described to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee how he was called to a company meeting, expecting a promotion, and told with his colleagues that “all of you in this room will be losing your jobs in the next 90 days. Your jobs have been given over to a foreign workforce. In the meantime you will be training your replacements until your jobs are 100 percent transferred over to them and if you don’t cooperate you will not receive any severance pay.” Mr. Perrero and several other Disney employees filed federal lawsuits in January accusing the company of abusing the H-1B program when it fired hundreds of workers and replaced them with cheaper help from overseas. Disney could only offer the usual excuse of lawyers with guilty clients that the lawsuits “are based on an unsustainable legal theory and are a wholesale misrepresentation of the facts.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican, has introduced a bill with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican candidate for president, which calls for a $110,000 annual minimum salary for H-1B workers to ensure that companies don’t discard Americans workers for cheap labor. Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican, has filed a companion bill in the House.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, disputes the premise that there’s a shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers. Census Bureau data show that in 2012, there were 12.1 million STEM degree holders, both domestic and foreign, but only 5.3 million held jobs in STEM fields. Moreover, annual wages for STEM employees grew by only 0.4 percent per year between 2002 and 2012, evidence of too many workers competing for too few jobs.

The competitive global marketplace offers no guarantee of a level playing field, but commerce devolves into warfare by other means when fundamental principles of decency and fairness are abandoned in pursuit of a buck. One rule that must apply to American business is that workers should not be forced to dig their own graves.

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