No one knows talent better than Donald Trump. That’s supposedly why the president has vowed to end exploitative temporary-visa labor systems and instead promote “merit-based” foreign-labor recruitment, so good jobs are reserved for skilled, deserving Americans, we’re told. He’s not just talking about building walls to keep out immigrants, but targeting engineers the United States imports to build our booming tech sectors, through the H-1B foreign-labor visa program.
Last week Trump announced small-scale reforms to tighten regulation of H-1B, which he denounced during his campaign as a “cheap labor program.” The program has been criticized from both the left and the right for being a corporate giveaway that helps replace US workers in IT and other “knowledge industries” with foreigners, many of them from Asian countries with a surplus of young, hungry techies seeking jobs with top multinationals—and often willing to work for bottom dollar. Since the issue deals with highly trained, college-educated specialty fields, it’s seen as a direct threat to the white-collar labor force, rather than the blue-collar, low-wage jobs that are arguably those that “Americans won’t do.”
But Trump’s promises to tighten oversight of the program will likely fall short of the full shutdown that his “America First” critics seek, and will ignore the program’s endemic inequities on labor rights. But mainly, Trump’s tough talk on visa workers is alienating thousands of foreign tech workers whose hopes for American-style success are now even more uncertain.
The core problem with H-1B, according to labor advocates, is that despite great demand for technology professionals, the program creates a low-wage labor surplus for the industry. As with other foreign guest-worker programs, the imported techies are often shunted into a second-tier permatemp labor pool, which in turn may displace jobs and depress wages for both migrant tech workers and their US colleagues.
In vilifying “white collar” workers from Asia, Trump opportunistically courted struggling lower-middle-class professionals, playing on lower-bourgeois protectionist anxieties. But beyond the political arena, whatever piecemeal reforms Trump presents will fail to hold accountable the real corporate giants driving Silicon Valley’s modern-day “shape-up.” Advocates say the system encourages abuse by mega-staffing firms like Infosys and Accenture, who acting as labor brokers that feed low-cost workers to employers, leaving many individual smaller companies unable to tap into a labor pool that is monopolized by the biggest players. While huge multinationals and staffing agencies dominate the market for this perma-outsourced workforce, they can harvest masses of applications in order to claim as many visa spots as possible, creating an epic backlog that the government tries to manage by issuing visas through a lottery system.