White House education plan leaves visa critics flabbergasted

President Obama’s $4 billion computer science initiative will get funding from India’s top offshore outsourcers

Credit: flickr/ttarasiuk

President Barack Obama's $4 billion computer science initiative, announced Saturday, is getting financial help from two India-based IT offshore firms. They are joining other tech firms contributing to parts of this program.

The firms, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, sit at the top of the pyramid of IT services firms that rely on H-1B visas. They are among the most successful firms in the IT services business.

Infosys and Tata delivered IT services to Southern California Edison and Northeast Utilities (now called Eversource Energy). Employees complained of being forced to train foreign workers to take their jobs, often as a condition of their severance packages.

Most recently, Northeast Utilities IT workers hung small American flags on their cubicles. The flags were meant to protest the transfer of their jobs to the IT services firms.

"It's a no-brainer for Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services to contribute to this Obama administration-driven initiative," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, who has testified on the H-1B use before Congress.

"For very little cost it buys both companies ... positive public relations, but more importantly a perception by those inside and outside of government that they have a close working relationship with the White House," he said.

The Obama administration wants to expand computer science training in elementary and secondary schools. The administration estimates that only about a quarter of all K-12 schools provide computer science instruction.

Infosys Foundation USA, the company's philanthropic arm, is contributing $1 million for computer science professional development programs for teachers, and Tata is providing an unspecified number of grants to teachers in 27 U.S. cities. The effort was described in a White House fact sheet.

The White House is also getting help from Microsoft, Google and Salesforce.com, among other tech firms. Congress will still need to fund $4 billion to pay for the program; the tech firms are contributing above and beyond that level.

Hira said it's "downright baffling" why the White House is partnering with Infosys and Tata.

"Whatever ethical judgment you make about their business model, it is clearly designed to undermine the objectives of the White House initiative," said Hira. "These firms employ a pure-play offshore outsourcing business, where their goal is to ship as many IT jobs offshore as possible," he said.

Tech industry trade groups run public relations campaigns that tout the benefits of raising the H-1B cap and deny, dismiss or minimize reports of U.S. worker displacements. Those most affected face risks in speaking out.

Severance agreements with non-disparagement clauses, along with fears of being blacklisted in a job hunt, make it hard to IT workers to tell their stories. Meanwhile, the tech industry's public relations effort continues, with handouts to lawmakers that say: "H-1B workers complement -- instead of displace -- U.S. workers."

The IEEE-USA, the largest engineering association in the U.S., is running a petition drive urging the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the H-1B program.

The tech industry says there is a skills shortage and it wants more H-1B visa holders to meet the need.

"This makes me angry," said Sara Blackwell, a Florida attorney representing some laid-off Disney IT workers, said of the involvement of the IT services firms with the White House initiative.

"Thousands of tech American workers are being fired and replaced" by firms "that are offering money to help educate Americans," said Blackwell.

"This puts out the message that Americans are not educated enough to do these IT jobs, which is wholly incorrect and offensive," said Blackwell,

The Disney employees Blackwell is representing have filed lawsuits against Disney and two IT services firms, Cognizant and HCL, which are not involved in the White House program.

The idea that there is a skills shortage is sharply disputed among independent researchers, but especially among U.S. IT workers displaced by foreign workers on temporary work visas.

Both Tata and Infosys are facing discrimination lawsuits from U.S., workers. Both firms have called the lawsuits groundless.

Infosys, in 2013, paid $34 million to the U.S. to settle allegations of visa abuse. The settlement, signed by both parties, included no admission of wrongdoing and imposed no limits on the firm's federal contracting. In the settlement, Infosys denied the claims, calling them untrue and unproven.

Last June U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) announced that the U.S. Department of Labor had opened an investigation into Infosys and Tata following the layoffs at Southern California Edison to determine whether there was any violation of the law.

In a joint statement, the two senators wrote: "A number of U.S. employers, including some large, well-known, publicly-traded corporations, have laid off thousands of American workers and replaced them with H-1B visa holders. To add insult to injury, many of the replaced American employees report that they have been forced to train the foreign workers who are taking their jobs. That's just plain wrong and we'll continue to press the Administration to help solve this problem."

In September, Infosys said the Department of Labor had concluded its investigation and found no violations.

If IT services firms "are off the hook, then it's open season to replace any and every American white-collar worker," said Hira. "That's not only disappointing, it is self-defeating since the best ambassadors to any profession are the workers who are already in it."

After reading this announcement, IT workers are "right to feel like the current government is working to undermine their careers," said Hira. "Any rational IT worker would tell young people to stay away from the IT profession," he said.

This story, "White House education plan leaves visa critics flabbergasted" was originally published by Computerworld.

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