Sen. Grassley's Gold mine of Temporary Worker Data

By David North on October 2, 2009

Senator Charles Grassely (R-IA), or more precisely his staff, has opened up a goldmine of policy and statistical information on the use of allegedly short-term foreign workers holding U.S. white collar jobs.

He and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) have introduced legislation to curb the wide-spread and little-noted abuses in the H-1B and the L-1 visa programs.

Both of these programs allow, in different ways, foreign professionals to take high-tech jobs in the U.S. with minimal governmental supervision. These workers often have brand-new university training, many at the masters level; they are delighted to have a chance to work in the U.S. at mundane salaries which are much better than they could get back home (often home is India). They are largely young and docile and many American companies prefer them to U.S. workers, particularly to middle-aged U.S. workers.

They often wind up doing pretty basic intellectual chores, and living, four to an apartment, in cramped quarters supplied by their employer; that employer is often not a U.S. corporation that manufactures things, but a recruiting agency with ties overseas (again, often in India). They come for multi-year assignments, with most of them hoping to convert their temporary visas to a green card.

As a result of their presence in the U.S., largely in engineering and scientific work, they lower the wages for everyone in these fields, and indirectly shoulder U.S. workers out of them.

All of this I have learned over the years as I have watched the programs grow since I was an Assistant to the Secretary of Labor some decades ago.

The H-1B program, partially operating through the Labor Department, allows U.S. employers of all kinds to bring in highly-skilled overseas workers for which the employers contend there are insufficient American applicants. The L-1 program is designed only for multinational employers with U.S. operations; it permits employers to transfer professional-level types who have been with the outfit for a couple of years from another nation to the U.S.

Originally the L-1 program was little utilized, with some multinational employers bringing in rising managers in overseas facilities to work in comparable U.S. facilities and then, after a couple of years, sending them on to their next assignments. This had relatively little impact on the U.S. labor market, the Labor Department was not involved, and the whole thing generated little controversy. (In comparison, the H1-B program has been subject to criticism, notably by out-of-work U.S. engineers, for years.)

In more recent years, however, the lightly regulated L-1 program has been noticed by the international merchants of labor, such as the India-based Tata Consultancy Services Limited, an organization that rents out its formerly India-based workers to U.S. employers through this program. One of the main jobs done in the U.S. by Tata's people is computer programming.

As one of Senator Grassley's data sets indicates, Tata, with 4,887 L visas issued in 2006, has become the largest single user of this particular loophole. The Senator's website also has a truly monumental list of all the listings of employers (there are many duplications) who are using this program. The list with 52 employers a page runs to 354 pages, with a total of some 18,400 entries. (The press release is here and the complete 354-page list is here.) One can imagine the lobbying strength of such a collection of employers, even though most have only one or two L-1 visa holders of their payroll.

The total admissions in the L-1 program has been moving up in recent years, from 320,829 in 2006, to 363,536 in 2007 to 382,776 in 2008. Meanwhile there has been a different trend in the more closely watched H-1B program, with admissions going from 431,853 in 2006, to (a peak of) 461,730 in 2007, to 409,619 in 2008.