Cheep Labor

Programs place Americans low in the pecking order

WANTED: Chick sexers. U.S. hatcheries seek applicants able to sort by sex several thousand chicks an hour. Superb hand-eye coordination a must. Pay starts at $5 an hour. Oh yeah, and one last thing: Only foreigners--preferably Asians--need apply.

Why Asians? Because the contractors who supply hatcheries with chick-sexing services claim only Asians have the physical dexterity and small hands needed to feel a chick's tiny sexual organs and determine whether they're male or female.

It's one of hundreds of examples from two little-publicized Labor Department programs that U.S. companies have used to pass over American workers in favor of more than 1 million noncitizen workers since 1992.

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The Permanent Alien Certification program, created in 1967, extends long-term residency to alien workers when "there are not sufficient United States workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available for the employment." The temporary H-1B visa program, created in 1990, authorizes only six years of residency, but does not require employers to seek U.S. workers first. According to research from documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, nearly all applicants to the programs are approved.

In early 1995, the New Jersey-based insurance company American International Group asked 250 of its computer programmers to train contract workers from India who obtained temporary visas through Syntel Co., a Troy, Mich., computer consulting company. Without warning, AIG then laid off all of its programmers and hired the newly trained Indians, who were paid substantially less. (At least in this case, the plan partially backfired: The Labor Department forced Syntel to cough up $78,000 in back wages to the Indian replacements.)

Other employers who claim they can't find qualified American workers include Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, Hardee's, and Pizza Hut. Turner Primrose, a lawyer for Hardee's, says there is often no choice but to hire foreign workers for jobs, such as flipping burgers, that pay the lowest wages. Sometimes, Primrose says, "You can't get somebody--you just can't--then you need to hire a foreign student."

Labor Secretary Robert Reich warns that these visa programs hammer away at the U.S. job market because foreign employees will work for substantially lower wages. As a result, he told a Senate subcommittee last year, the programs displace U.S. workers and can eventually erode employers' commitment to the domestic workforce. (The programs also cost about $60 million a year to administer.)

But it's not surprising that Congress ignores Reich. The Labor Department programs count the National Association of Manufacturers (whose membership includes the Big Three automakers) among their supporters, as well as technology titan Microsoft, which hired a special lobbyist to work exclusively on this issue.

Besides, the government itself has developed a fondness for the temporary visa program. In the past four years, the Agriculture Department used it to hire an electronics engineer and a chemist; the Food and Drug Administration got a pathologist; the Federal National Mortgage Association a management analyst; and the Commerce Department a theoretical physicist.

And then there's the Department of Health and Human Services, which recently filled a position some would argue could easily have gone to a U.S. worker who is "able, willing, qualified, and available." It hired a foreign lawyer.

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