Think tank calls for reform in H-1B, including substantial raise in workers’ wage

The foreign workers on H-1B visas that are available to people touted as the “best and brightest” or “highly skilled” possess neither rare skills nor exceptional qualifications and their actual minimum qualifications are much more modest—a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience, a new report argues.

The report, “Reforming US' High-Skilled Guest Worker Program,” brought out by the South Asia Center of Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council on Jan. 15, says although the Congress has repeatedly chosen not to advance legislation to fix the H-1B program, it is highly vulnerable to exploitation, widely abused, and in serious need of a major overhaul.

The most common misconception that news editors, journalists, think tank analysts, and even politicians have about the H-1B program, the report says, is the belief that employers must demonstrate that there are no qualified U.S. workers available before they hire an H-1B worker.

They believe, and often wrongly claim, that employers hire these workers only as a last resort when no U.S. workers can be found.”Yet, employers can fill a position with an H-1B worker without ever attempting to recruit a U.S. worker for the job,” the report, written by Ron Hira, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University and Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, says.

The report suggests three key reforms to repair the guest worker program which was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 and “was flawed from its reception,” the report said, adding that the current system not only harms Americans, it also enables H-1B workers to be exploited. “H-1B workers themselves are underpaid, vulnerable to abuse, and frequently placed in poor working conditions,’ the report said.

The report came a few days after President Trump floated a “potential path to citizenship” for H1-B visa holders in a Jan. 11 tweet, as the partial government shutdown continued. It was not clear, according to news reports, what Trump meant exactly, as simplifying a path to citizenship for such visa holders would almost certainly require approval from Congress, and the White House has made no such suggestion in its latest border security funding proposal, or any other public offer.

Noting that approximately one-third of the U.S. workforce holds a bachelor’s degree, the Atlantic Council report says that the first and the most important reform is to substantially raise the wages of H-1B workers. “If the United States is going to invite in the “best and brightest” workers, they ought to be paid in the top quartile,” it said.

Second, it said, employers should demonstrate they have actively recruited U.S. workers, and offered positions toqualified ones, prior to turning to the H-1B program. The rationale of the H-1B program is to fill labor gaps, not simply to swell the pool of candidates for employers.

Third, the program needs an effective and efficient enforcement mechanism. Current program compliance is complaint-driven, resting almost entirely on whistleblowers to reduce fraud.

It noted that a number of economists have recently described how rising monopsony power in the labor market is an important factor in explaining U.S. wage stagnation.

One of those economists, Princeton University’s Alan Krueger, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the Barack Obama White House, has described how the executives of Silicon Valley technology firms were especially eager to use their monopsony power to keep their engineers’ wages low by limiting their opportunities to leave.

“Especially in the technology industry, employers see limiting worker mobility as an important human-resource strategy to keep wages low,” the report said, adding that the “sensible way” to design an effective program is to center safeguards around the visas themselves, ensuring each visa is being granted for the right reasons — to fill a true labor shortage with a foreign guest worker who possesses truly specialized skills. “Implementing and administering such a system would create consistent and effective H-1B performance.”

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