Monday, April 15, 2013

Who's Hiring H1B Visa Workers in the USA?

Still a dream for many people.
Image courtesy Biersaufer
My sincerest apologies for not posting last week. Between wrapping up my current contract, starting a new company, a (very mild) flu, having guests, and time off from work for an OFII meeting, I was a bit swamped last week.

I haven't written anything previously about the US H1B visa program, though I know I have a decent non-US readership. Part of this is because I don't find that visa route as interesting, but the politics of it are fascinating.

We've long known that the majority of skilled labor heads to the US instead of Europe (which is why Europe has introduced the Blue Card) and the major advantages are:
  • You only need need to speak English
  • One set of immigration laws for all 50 states
  • High salaries
If you're young and healthy, an H1B visa is a fantastic choice. So why don't I like it?
  1. You can't change jobs on your visa
  2. Your spouse cannot work
  3. The 7% failure
The first point is crucial. If  you lose your job you can get kicked out of the country very easily. Most countries allow a work visa to be transferred. No so in the US.

The fact that your spouse can't work is frustrating, but this happens in many countries and is one of the reasons why the term trailing spouse was created. It can be a frustrating and financially damaging experience.

The 7% failure is simple: no country can supply more than 7% of H1B visa recipients. So China, with a population of 1.34 billion people, is restricted to the same number as Montenegro, with a population of just over half a million. India and China together make up one third of the world's population and they have a lot of very talented people who will never be allowed to work in the US due to how the H1B is structured.

And then I read this NPR strory.

I've heard for a while that the H1B was being abused, but I didn't know how bad it was. Half of last year's 85,000 H1B visas which were issued were snapped up by off-shore outsourcers. These are companies such as:
Who are these companies? They are all IT companies and, while I don't know that all of them do this, many of them hire Indian nationals at a lower rate than a comparable US worker (illegal, but immigration enforcement funding is being cut). They often get trained in the US worker's job and then sent home to do it, or remain in the US at a lower rate than the US worker.

This story is finally getting more traction. The Financial Times has the following to say about the H1B visa problem:
H1B holders themselves are subjected to a form of indentured contract that forbids them from changing employers while in the US. Absurdly, their spouses are denied work visas and in many US states cannot even open a bank account or get a drivers’ licence.
There are many other issues with the H1B, but until the US government starts functioning reasonably well (I'm not holding my breath on that), it's going to take a while to fix the rampant problems.


  1. Officially, you cannot even change jobs within the company (which kind of make some sense, as the company that hired you ought to show they cannot hire an American to do the same job), although when I was in the US on an H1B, I switched jobs within the company several times.

    As for being kicked out of the country, the rules says that if you lose your job, you should leave the country within 10 days (at least, that was the rule in the 1990s). But in practice, they don't go hunting for you. I spend 7 months in the US between jobs (mostly waiting for a new visa), and that was not a problem.

    What is a problem is that there's a time limit on the viaa. An H1B is valid for 3 years, it can then be renewed for another 2 years, and then for 1 year. After that, you have to leave the country for a year before you can reapply. If you want to stay longer, you better apply for a green card in time (which for Europeans can take 2 years; for Chinese it can take 6 years). A friend of mine was in the USA on an H1B, started his green card procedure after 2 years (with his employer a sponsor), and then when the process was almost done (all that needed to be done was for the INS to mail the paperwork to him), he got laid off. Bye bye green card. (At least, using that route; in the mean time, he had married an American, and was able to apply for a green card as a spouse).

    Earlier, I mentioned having to wait 7 months for new paperwork. The new paper work was a new H1B visa, for a new job. (A new visa does not mean a restart of the 3+2+1 years). Why did it take so long? That all has to do with the 85,000 number. As soon as the limit is reached for the year (which runs from Oct 1 to Sep 30), INS is not allowed to even process new applications. My new application was filed in late August, ending at the bottom of the pile; it wasn't until March before INS got rubber stamp the application.

  2. I have also heard about Indian IT companies misusing H1B visas and exploit their Indian employees to expand their profit margins. I think some checks should be imposed by the US government, so that this misuse and exploitation should end. In my opinion,these visas should always be issued to individuals and there should be a strict check that companies are not acting as 'in between guy' and those hapless employees do not end up being exploited.