The new indentured servants

first_imgAs promised, US President Donald Trump embarked on a flurry of activities to limit immigration into the USA. He has done so through the issuance of “Executive Orders”. Executive Orders are issued by the President as Head of the Executive Branch of government. They have the full force of law, providing they are in consonance with the Constitution and the law. For Guyanese who have been well educated by current events here, this means Executive Orders are subject to Judicial Review.While he has not done so as yet, it is widely expected President Trump will issue an Executive Order on a special visa that has precipitated wide debate over the last decade in the US – the H-1B visa. Introduced in 1990 by then President Bush, it permitted US firms to sponsor foreign individuals, either studying in US Universities or residing in their countries of origin, for jobs in the US that needed specialised technical skills. President Bush justified the programme, through which 80,000 visas would be issued annually to allow the US to keep pace with technological changes driving industries, since the US educational institutions were not keeping up with demand. Following the introduction of the programme, some one million individuals with “expert’ skills have been allowed into the US and presently occupy quite senior positions in US corporations, especially in Silicon Valley. Interestingly, Melania Trump, the new US First Lady, obtained an H-1B visa in 1996 for modelling, in which she averred she was an “expert”.In the last decade, however, there has been sustained criticism of the programme, which introduced a new term to most Americans, but one that most Guyanese would be quite familiar with: indentured labourers. With the 100th Anniversary of the end of Indentureship in Guyana about to be commemorated on March 12 of this year, the present debate rehearsed many of the arguments that were floated during our experience with indentured labourers here. The irony, of course, is that the majority of Americans are descended from Indentured Immigrants that were shipped in from Europe in the beginning of the 17th century. The essence of the indentured labour relationship is the labourer is “bound” to the employer for a specific period of time, and paid at specified rates.In the modern US H-1B variant, the individual is recruited by the American firm – typically by recruitment firms that specialise in this area – and applies for the visa for the worker, which is valid for three years. It is important to note that like the indentured immigrant of yore, the H-1B immigrant could not change employers without the express consent of the original employer, to whom the visa is actually issued. The immobilisation of the H-1B workers is important as it was in the sugar industry, since the workers are needed for specific periods – in the former for projects, and in the latter for quickly processing the sugar cane.While it is acknowledged that the H-1B visa winners (there is an annual lottery) have given an invaluable shot in the arm to American high-tech industries, the gravamen of local concerns, incorporated in three Bills in front of the US Congress, is by paying them lower salaries than those of Americans, they have displaced some of the latter from jobs and more pertinently, have made qualifying themselves for such jobs not worth it. This is an argument that resonates with the Guyanese experience circa 1838.The underpayment is acknowledged by employers and employees – and confirmed by two Congressionally-commissioned reports – but it is legal: the Labour Department’s “prevailing wage” of US$60,000 is way above present day entre level salaries in the high-tech industries. Another inducement for the “new indentured labours” to work at below what Americans would accept is the H-1B visa holders can apply to become “Permanent Residents” and remain in the US – but only if their employers approve. This requirement ensures that H-1B workers toe the line at all times.last_img

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