Sunday, February 22, 2009

Foreigners,Minorities,outsiders will feel the wrath as jobs diminish

By Dina Bass

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp.’s plan to eliminate U.S. workers after lobbying for more foreigner visas is stirring resentment among lawmakers and employees.

As many as 5,000 employees are being shown the door at Microsoft, which uses more H1-B guest-worker visas than any other U.S. company. Some employees and politicians say Microsoft should get rid of foreigners first.

“If they lay people off, are they going to think of America first or are they going to think of the world first?” Chuck Grassley, a Republican Senator from Iowa, said in an interview. He sent a letter to Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer the day after Microsoft announced the job cuts last month, demanding Ballmer fire visa holders first.

Across the technology industry, some of the biggest users of H1-B visas are cutting jobs, including Intel Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. The firings at Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, came less than a year after Chairman Bill Gates lobbied Congress for an expansion of the visa program.

Even before Microsoft announced the cuts, its first-ever companywide layoffs, comments on a blog run by an anonymous Microsoft worker angrily debated getting rid of guest workers first. The author of the Mini-Microsoft blog eventually had to censor and then completely block all arguments about visas, after the conversation “got downright nasty.”

New Hires

Microsoft is hiring 2,000 to 3,000 workers over the next 18 months, offsetting the job cuts. Some of those will certainly be on H1-B visas, said Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman for the Redmond, Washington-based company. She declined to comment on how many workers laid off are on visas. Laid-off Microsoft employees aren’t always a good fit for new positions, she said.

“If you have a laid off General Motors engineer, that doesn’t qualify them for a job as a software engineer,” Terzano said. “It’s the same with some of the people laid off at our company.”

Microsoft rose 9 cents to $18 at 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares tumbled 45 percent last year.

The slumping economy and rising unemployment may make it harder for technology companies to persuade the government to expand the H1-B program, designed to attract workers in areas such as science and technology. Since the annual number of H1-B visas issued dropped to 65,000 in 2004 from 195,000 in previous years, the program has been oversubscribed before each year even began. In 2008, the government reached the maximum number of applications just one week after it began accepting them.

‘Best Talent’

Asked about whether some companies may back off from lobbying for more H1-B visas, Intel Chief Financial Officer Stacy Smith said that could happen as hiring drops. Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker, is closing five older plants by year-end, affecting as many as 6,000 jobs.

“Our strategy has always been to hire the best talent we can hire anywhere in the world,” Smith said in an interview this month. “It’s the fuel that moves our industry forward.”

Companies like Microsoft, which sent Gates to persuade Congress to ease visa restrictions in March, could be forced to curb those efforts, said Microsoft Vice President Dan’l Lewin.

“People probably will be a lot more cautious about how public they are, but it’s not going to go away as an issue,” he said. “You need the people.”

Stimulus Bill

Opponents of the program are using the economy and job cuts as a way to up the volume of the debate. The Senate added an amendment co-authored by Grassley to the economic stimulus bill signed this week that restricts the hiring of H1-B visa holders at more than 300 banks receiving government bailout funds.

Even Zoe Lofgren, a congresswoman representing San Jose, California, said in an interview that U.S. companies slashing jobs should keep Americans where possible. She introduced legislation in 2008 to make it easier for foreign students studying for advanced degrees to stay in the country.

While workers on H1-B visas aren’t included in a law that protects green-card holders from employment discrimination, Grassley’s demand that Microsoft fire foreigners first may still violate civil rights laws, said Howard Chang, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Transportation Costs

Foreigners face severe difficulties when they are fired because their visas are tied to their employer, said Paul Soreff, a Seattle lawyer and former chairman of the Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. While employers must pay for a visa holder’s ticket home, transporting other family members and their possessions falls on the worker.

Still, Grassley has supporters among groups that lobby for technology workers, such as the Programmers Guild and the Alliance for IBM. IBM has cut about 4,000 jobs, based on separation agreements dated last month. IBM spokesman Ian Colley didn’t return a call seeking comment.

“Nobody wants to be cold-hearted -- they’re workers just like us,” said Lee Conrad, national coordinator of the IBM group, which is seeking union recognition. “But IBM is making long-term employees walk the plank. The H1-B people should be cut first.”

source: Dina Bass Bloomberg

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