Yes, there are matters on the minds of US politicians other than you know what...
Last week saw intense lobbying in Washington DC, both for and against allowing more foreign programmers and analysts to work in the country on temporary H-1B visas.
A vote on a bill to increase the number of visas issued annually was expected last Thursday but was delayed for a week. Although no reason for the delay was given those opposing the bill said it was because the sponsors did not have the votes for it to pass.
The eventual outcome of the debate will affect body shops that hire contractors to go to the US. And it will affect ambitious immigrants who would like to work at the hub of hi-tech action in Silicon Valley.
In relation to the hundreds of thousands of people who work in hi-tech the numbers that are being argued about are relatively small. This year, 65,000 H-1Bs were issued. The new bill would raise the limit in stages to 115,000 by 2001, then drop it back to 65,000 in 2003.
And not all those visas go to hi-tech workers, only some 42 per cent of this year's total. Many H-1Bs cover healthcare workers as the programme was originally set up to attract nurses when there was a shortage back in 1990.
Despite the numbers the issue has become emotionally charged, pitting Silicon Valley employers and "the future of American competitiveness" against representatives of their employees and "the future of jobs for Americans".
The debate has brought together some strange alliances. For instance, arch conservative and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and liberal leaning US President Bill Clinton are more or less in agreement on this issue.
Both feel that the US doesn't need any more foreign computer specialists taking jobs from their home bred cousins. The President will have the final say on the issue. He can either sign or veto a bill if and when one arrives on his desk. He has left the door open for his mind to be changed by asking for some specific requirements on the retraining of American workers, which if included in the bill might sway his decision.
Lobbying to change the President's mind and also secure the votes in the US House of Representatives and the Senate is a coalition of employer organisations including the American Electronics Association, Business Software Alliance and Information Technology Association of America, plus interested parties such as the American Immigration Lawyers' Association and the US Chamber of Commerce. They constitute an umbrella organization called American Business for Legal Immigration.
The employers had earlier this year come close to winning the day and would have done so quite easily if Silicon Valley companies had not laid off nearly 200,000 workers already this year.
The fact that employers were asking to hire more foreign workers while firing US workers galvanised concerted opposition to an increase in H-1B. In fact the Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers wants the whole scheme dropped altogether.
That is unlikely to happen but the IEEE, the union movement, various academics, plus email lobbying from computer specialists themselves have shaken the politicians so much that there have been a number of postponements on a vote.
Just what are the issues on both sides of the argument? The basic premise from the employers is that there is a desperate shortage of hardware and software engineers and for the US to maintain its competitiveness it really needs to hire foreign workers to fill gaps.
The chief executives of two companies, T J Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor and Aart de Geus of Synopsys, have both in the last week written essays laying out why H-1Bs are vital for the hi-tech industry.
Synopsys, said de Geus, presently has 329 engineering jobs vacant. "Many high technology companies cannot find enough qualified engineers and scientists to fill the advanced technical positions they have available," he wrote. "Certain hi-tech jobs require such specialised education, skills and experience that there are far fewer qualified candidates than the number of opportunities available. To stay competitive, American companies are forced to look beyond our borders to find the highly specialised workers they need," he continued.
De Geus laid some of the blame at the door of the US education system for not placing more emphasis on maths and science in high school, which had the effect that few graduates went on to pursue computer engineering and computer science at university.
Cypress' Rodgers made the point that, even at a time of a 'semiconductor recession', the company had 75 vacancies. He wrote that, because of the difficulty of finding qualified engineers first of all in Silicon Valley and then in the US, the company opened facilities in London, and then in Cork, Ireland and Bangalore, India.
He made the point that, without the foreign workers, Cypress would not have grown as quickly as it had.
De Geus and Rodgers savaged a basic tenant of the anti-H1-B lobby - that hiring foreigners is hiring cheap labour. "It is also absurd to suggest that a two-tiered salary structure exists, with foreign born engineers earning less than native born engineers of comparable age and education levels. If any Silicon Valley company tried to pay foreign nationals less, in addition to breaking the law, it would destroy itself as its engineers eventually quit to go elsewhere," said Rodgers.
"From an employer's point of view, it's not cheaper to hire a foreign worker. Aside from paying a strong average wage, there are extra legal and human resource support expenses involved in hiring an H-1B visa employee. For every visa application we submit we must also prove that we're offering the equivalent of an equally trained and experienced American worker's salary. In fact, the Department of Labor can compel us to pay more if it thinks our applicant deserves it," said de Geus.
The average wage paid to H-1 B visa holders here at Synopsys is $74,157, said de Geus. Rodgers said, "Cypress's average San Jose employee - excluding me and our vice presidents - earns $81,860 a year, including 19 per cent benefits."
Despite companies releasing those salary figures, opponents of the H-1B visa argue that hiring foreign workers is depressing salaries. They even dispute the fact that there is a shortage of specialists at all, claiming that companies are refusing to hire more expensive senior people.
Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at University of California at Davis said: "The only 'shortage' is that of cheap labour, in the form of H-1B workers and younger new college graduates. Age discrimination is rampant in the industry."
He cited the case of programmer Paul Petersen. "Laid off three years ago at age 40 - and replaced by a much younger worker - he has been unable to find another job as a programmer. He has had to work outside the programming field, such as a sales clerk for one-third of his former salary. This illustrates the fact that the low unemployment rates hyped by lobbyists are meaningless. When programmers like Petersen are forced to find jobs in other fields, they do not show up in unemployment statistics."
Matloff claimed there was no shortage of specialists as Silicon Valley companies hire less than five per cent of job applicants. And he said his own research showed that immigrants were paid up to 20 per cent less than native workers.
A big argument that the opponents of H-1B pursue is that older specialists should be retrained with newer skills such as Java. That is the issue that has President Clinton's attention and he may sign the bill to increase the number of H-1Bs if companies that hire the foreign workers pay a still to be decided sum of money into a retraining pool.
Silicon Valley companies dispute the retraining argument, saying they need the workers now, not tomorrow. They also have balked at paying a large fee but they will have to come round if they want their extra workers.
The employers do not seem to have the votes otherwise and, as anyone who has been following US politics recently knows, opinion polls hold a tremendous amount of sway in Washington.
And the public seems to be against letting more foreigners into the US. Last Wednesday, the day before the crucial vote was to take place, the IEEE issued the results of a public opinion poll that showed more than four out of five Americans were against substantially increasing H-1B visa limits.
According to an IEEE-USA/Harris Poll, 82 per cent of 1,000 adults opposed Congress "allowing US companies to sponsor 190,000 additional foreign technical workers, as temporary employees for up to six years". Only 16 per cent were in favour, while two per cent were unsure.
While the poll's main question was undoubtedly loaded, the numbers probably caught the attention of the politicians, many of whom are up for re-election in November.
The IEEE has been rallying its 220,000 members to lobby their politicians and as IEEE-USA president John Reinert, said: "It's clear that the American public is adamantly against a vast expansion of the hi-tech guest worker programme. Members of Congress might want to keep this in mind as voters prepare to head to the polls in several short weeks."
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