Disney and Illusion: The Great H-1B Visa Heist

By Jerry Kammer on June 18, 2015

The annals of corporate disregard for the well-being of workers should hold a place for a new, disenchanting story from the Magic Kingdom. A famed American institution, Disney Parks and Resorts has managed not only to lay off American tech workers so it can hire cheaper foreign workers, it has required the departing Americans to train their foreign replacements.

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But that's not all the bad news from the suddenly tragic kingdom. Consider the efforts of Disney CEO Bob Iger, who has joined Michael Bloomberg and other corporate heads to form the "Partnership for a New American Economy". The goal of this ironically named outfit is to persuade Congress that they should be allowed to bring in ever more foreign tech workers who come here with H-1B visas. My CIS colleague David North estimated several years ago that more than 600,000 such workers, a majority of whom come from India, are employed in the United States at any one time.

These paragons of corporate cynicism somehow summoned the nerve — with the help of a bevy of Washington lobbyists and consultants — to sponsor a briefing where congressional staffers were told that "H-1B workers complement — instead of displace — U.S. workers." They actually put that whopper in print, in a briefing document.

Now, most of the press has taken a snooze on this astonishing story of corporate greed and reckless disregard for American workers. But a few reporters have stepped up to inform the public about the ongoing Great Visa Heist.

Computer World was first, with a story headlined "Fury Rises at Disney Over Use of Foreign Workers". It reported that as Disney minions informed the targeted American tech workers that they had no future in the new Disney economy, "Some workers left the rooms crying; others appeared shocked."

Then came the front-page New York Times article headlined "Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements."

It drew an extraordinary outpouring of reader outrage that has added an element of morality, in the form of public shaming, to the coldly corporate calculations at Disney.

Now we learn that another Disney division, Disney ABC Television group, which had told about 30 of its own tech workers that they were also being replaced, has rescinded the move. The public outcry needed to be calmed. But no one expects Disney to back away from H-1Bs.

Today's mail brought the new issue of The New York Review of Books. It includes a fine article, "The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent" (the online version is a paywall), which notes that advocates of the H-1B program defend it as a noble effort to "to draw the world's best minds into our economy".

That certainly has been the line of Bill Gates. But the story quotes University of California-Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff, who says most H-1B workers are "ordinary people doing ordinary work".

Part of the ordinary work of those involved in pulling off the Great H-1B Visa Heist is to circumvent the often-flimsy rules to protect the interests of American workers. As Matloff notes, the corporations "have an arsenal of legal means to reject all U.S. workers who apply."

The article also draws on the work of Michael Teitelbaum, whose article last year for The Atlantic, "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage" (drawn from his latest book), debunks the myth that American students are shunning the STEM fields. As the NYRB reports, Teitelbaum "makes a convincing case that even now the U.S. has all the high-tech brains and bodies it needs, or at least that the economy can absorb."

Here is an excerpt from the NYRB piece that explains what's at work in the minds of corporate executives who moan that they must have foreign workers because of a dreadful shortage of Americans who can cut the tech mustard:

Most businesses prefer having an oversupply of workers, in part to keep those on board fearful lest they be replaced. And if less money goes to the rank and file, that often means that more money is available for the executive floors. In Matloff's view, the dramatic warnings about scarcities of skills are actually "all about an industry wanting to lower wages."