Home / Opinion / Columns /  Spare a thought for H1-B workers laid off in America

Elon Musk has been eviscerating Twitter after he took over, but he is by no means alone. Multiple news reports have been highlighting major cuts at most Big-Tech companies. According to MSN’s MarketWatch (bit.ly/3Vd96df) HP plans to shed 4,000 to 6,000 jobs over a three-year restructuring period. Amazon will lay off up to 10,000 workers, and Amazon CEO Andy Jassy has said that layoffs will extend into the new year. Cisco has announced a ‘limited business restructuring’ that will axe 4,000 people. Meanwhile, cloud and SaaS firms such as Salesforce, Atlassian and Twilio are also having a tough time on the stock market and Salesforce has announced it will lay off “hundreds of employees."

While the steep market decline in these companies’ stocks and the ensuing layoffs are bad news, there is one type of worker that is by far the one that has been most unfairly treated by the recent turn of events, and that is the Indian worker who is on an H1-B work visa in America. Mass tech layoffs have left hundreds of workers living in the US on temporary H1-B visas with little time to find another job, without which they will have to leave the country.

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Amazon, Lyft, Meta, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter have sponsored at least 45,000 H-1B workers in the past three years, according to a Bloomberg (bloom.bg/3EIiONI) analysis of data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Bloomberg’s analysis, which includes data from US Securities Exchange Commission filings and from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, indicates that quite a large proportion of Big-Tech companies’ global workforce is composed of H1-B visa holders. For instance, in both Twitter and Amazon’s case, 9% of global workers are on H1-B visas, and in Meta’s case, it is 11% of global workers. Note that these are percentages of each company’s global workforce; if the denominator was each company’s workforce in the US, which is where all H1-B workers are located, these percentages would be significantly higher.

Bloomberg reports that the layoffs have had an especially big impact on Indians, who tend to be on temporary visas longer than other foreign groups because of backlogs in getting permanent residency (a green card). Each country is typically allowed a maximum of 7% of the employment-based green cards issued each year, so while there are almost half a million Indian nationals in this queue, only about 10,000 green cards a year are available for them. A US Congressional report (bit.ly/3GWgPYZ) estimated that Indians filing in 2020 would have to wait as long as 195 years for a green card. Yes, that’s almost two centuries!

As if to underplay the human impact, Bloomberg reports that the median salary of such workers is actually very high and reports that the median salary for an H-1B worker was $106,000 in the third quarter, according to data from the US Department of Labor. The report goes on to say: “But workers at top tech companies make much more. The median salary for an H-1B worker at Meta, Salesforce and Twitter was about $175,000, not including hefty bonuses and stock options."

I look askance at single measures of central tendency such as averages and median numbers, since they can be used selectively to embellish or understate a finding. It is better to look at the salary distribution across a population first. Let me explain. In a series of five salary figures, let’s say $40,000, $45,000, $175,000, $180,000 and $185,000, the median would be $175,000, because it is simply the middle number in a series of values. In an example where 300,000 workers make $40,000, 197,000 make $45,000 and only 1,000 workers are in each of the $175,000, $180,000 and $185,000 pay slabs, the median, which separates the upper half of a sample from the lower half, would still be pushed up by the highly paid, while the reality is that most workers earn more modest salaries.

So, in order to level this analysis somewhat, I chose to track down the distribution of salaries from the Economic Research Institute’s Salary Expert Database. This is for web developers across the US, and according to this data, the average web developer gross salary in US is $96,466 per annum while the median is $95,203. An entry-level web developer (1-3 years of experience) earns an average salary of $67,911. On the other end, a senior level web developer (8+ years of experience) earns an average salary of $119,629. This suggests that the reality for most Indian H-1B tech workers is probably different than the median numbers cited for those employed at Big Tech firms.

Many Indians with H-1B visas have been living in the US for years, awaiting permanent residency (the coveted ‘green card’). Many of these H1-B workers been in the US for so long now that they have home mortgages, student loans and children in school. In other words, they behave like Americans, but have no recourse to stay in the US should they lose their jobs. If they are unable to find another company to hire them and sponsor their H1-B visas within 60 days, they face the risk of being packed off.

The human cost of being summarily expelled, as borne by those who have spent years putting down roots in the US, is hard to imagine. The rule tying these so-called ‘highly skilled’ workers to just one employer lays the ground for all sorts of worker abuse, economic and otherwise. Germany’s experiment with Turkish guest workers or its ‘Gastarbeiter’ should serve as an example of how not to handle this issue.

Siddharth Pai is co-founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund manager.

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