Tech firms battle US job protection laws while importing workers

On the one hand, importing more foreign workers into the US for lower wages than US workers might earn, would save companies money. On the other, exporting US workers to foreign soil could save them money too.

After coming under close scrutiny by a US senator around its policies of importing employees into the US, Microsoft on Tuesday joined with IBM and several other high tech firms in fighting a "Buy American" provision -- appearing in the pending economic stimulus package -- which is designed to protect American workers.

For its part, IBM has reportedly launched an internal program called Project Match, aimed at exporting some of its thousands of newly pink-slipped employees to the United Arab Emirates and other countries, where they would work for much lower wages than in the US.

Directly after Microsoft's own announcement of 5,000 job layoffs, company CEO Steve Ballmer got a letter from Sen. Charles Grassley (R - Iowa), who has often criticized the tech industry's use of H1-B, a visa program aimed at importing workers into the US when qualified Americans are not available to fill specialized jobs.

In light of Microsoft's layoffs, Grassley demanded to know whether the company would keep its imported H1-B hires instead of finding qualified American replacements.

"Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American work force. I encourage Microsoft to ensure that Americans are given priority in job retention. Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times," according to the senator.

Microsoft has been leading a tech industry effort seeking increases in the H1-B cap.

Last fall, though, a report from the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services showed a 20% violation rate in the H1-B program, citing violations that included fake degrees, forged documentation, and imported visa holders not getting paid the prevailing US wage, for example.

Together with Sen. Richard Durbin (D - Ill.), Grassley then filed legislation to reform the program by requiring employers to prove that an H1-B worker would not displace an American.

Then, on Tuesday of this week, Microsoft's name showed up on a list of companies signing a letter sent to Senate leaders opposing the "Buy American" provision in the Senate version of the emerging economic stimulus plan. The Buy American plank would require manufactured goods used for projects funded by the economic stimulus bill to be produced in the US.

But "enacting expansive new Buy American restrictions would invite our international partners to exclude American gods and services from hundreds of billions of opportunities in their stimulus packages and perhaps to adopt Buy Local rules or raise other barriers to American goods more broadly across their economies," argued the companies in opposition.

"The Buy American provisions of S. 336 are as unnecessary as they are harmful," according to the letter signed by Microsoft and eight other organizations, including IBM, AT&T, Oracle, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, the Technology Association of America, the Aerospace Industries Association, and the Coalition for Government Procurement.

At the same time, IBM has come under attack from its own employee union for the Project Match program, which is encouraging laid off IBM workers in the US to apply for jobs with IBM overseas. "Project Match will help former employees to locate potential job opportunities in growth markets where your skills are in demand," an internal IBM e-mail reportedly said.

IBM is providing Project Match participants help with obtaining visas to work abroad and financial compensation for moving costs, according to Lee Conrad, national coordinator for Alliance@IBM, who received the document from a recently laid off worker.

But Conrad told a local newspaper in IBM's home base of Westchester County, NY that the exported workers will be paid according to much lower pay rates in their new countries of residence.

The e-mail document offers to put former workers in contact with IBM hiring managers in countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Nigeria, Romania, the Czech Republic, and South Africa.

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