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While at my parents place, I was repacking old books from college and was reminded by all the course materials I forgot about. I took a number of classes on Imperialism and Colonialism (capital I and C), American slavery, and exploited populations in the 18th and 19th century. I haven’t thought about this stuff in years.
History shows us how immigrant labor and exploited populations were used for strike breaking. During the 18th and 19th century, racial minorities were regularly used as wager threats to a dissatisfied workforce. The agriculture industry in the 18th century. The railroad industry in the 19th century. We see the clear examples in the importation of slave labor or the corporate sponsored mass-migration of labor. Examples can be seen in the Chinese immigration to California during the gold-rush, the Irish immigration to the US during the potato famines, or the modern day migration of agriculture workers from Latin America. Large employers use their influence and economic interests to reduce overall costs and influence available labor supply and demand.
In the tech community, there has been a lot of debate regarding immigration visa’s and the need to increase the number of STEM/Tech workers allowed in the US. The current argument floating about is stating that we need to increase the number of visa’s allocated in the US for foreign tech workers. The surrounding narrative states that our tech sector is not able to grow fast enough because we don’t have enough trained workers. As a result, our industry is floundering with an underperforming economy.
The response to this argument states that the need for more visa’s is simply an excuse to lower salaries for tech workers. Tech employer’s and the venture capitalists are deemed interested in exploiting a foreign worker pool to decrease overall tech salaries. The argument looks at the current tech worker salaries (often well above six-figures) and criticizes the industry for wanting to decrease industry norms. Specifically, exploited markets like India, China, or eastern-European countries would be targeted.
The question that comes to mind is, how would you test for either case. First, who are the companies who are looking to make the H1B Visa reforms? Second, what are the salary offerings placed on the potentially new labor pool? Third, what is the consequence to the existing labor pool? Although the questions are hypothetical, I think you can make intelligent assumptions.
The major groups behind immigration reform are some of the largest tech companies on market. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft to name a few. These companies are also the largest operating entities that can allocate additional resources to lobbying for corporate political agendas. Im quite sure the corporate interest is backed with an economic incentive in mind. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an active priority.
On the other hand, there is a large number of smaller companies who are unable to hire capable employees because there is a sheer lack of talent available to them. The primary reason startup tech companies move to Silicon Valley is for the access to the tech talent pool. There is no economic incentive for a startup with 10-20 employees to start cutting costs at an employee salary level. They simply want to fulfill their product goals and hit their investor promised milestones. When identifying, interviewing and hiring is 30-50% of time involved in fulfilling that goal, there is a talent problem.
The parallels of strike breakers and current immigration reform are easy to make. I don’t think its so easy. In the past, the labor influx was used as a response to a demand for worker rights. The labor markets were gruesome and unregulated. As a result, workers demanded fair compensation for their work. Current tech workers are far from these conditions. Software engineers are in a position of dream jobs with flexible hours, high compensation, and high demand. If the supply/demand equation for available labor changed, I don’t think the climate would drastically change for tech workers. In fact, I think the may be higher demand for skilled labor and expert talent.
I think the change in visa policy is a good idea. I have a lot more to think through about this topic, but Im interested in your thoughts.