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Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.

The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.

Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.

The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.

Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.

The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.

Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.

Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close.

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