A former employer of mine was a big user of H-1B and I-140 visa-workers. They were big enough we had international development centers, and often those employees came to the US HQ. As an Ops-type, this was pretty awesome since we had follow-the-sun support for our stuff. It also meant holidays in other countries impacted our operations in ways that I'd never experienced before. It was a very diverse workplace, which I enjoyed immensely.
However, the big flaw revealed itself when said company had a really bad quarter and decided to reorganize.
What 'reorganization' involved:
- A near complete musical-chairs round in the Executive VP, and VP offices.
- A restructuring of the company into completely new divisions.
- Completely closing one of our foreign development offices.
- A serious downsizing of the US workforce.
For those of us who are full citizens, we have a completely fluid job-market. This company was in one of the major tech-hubs (the DC metro area, a.k.a. NOVA, a.k.a. 'Ashburn VA', a.k.a. "us-east-1") where cloud-talent was experiencing a shortage and salaries were rising quickly. Unsurprisingly, a large percentage of our senior cloud-trained talent left the company rather than deal with working for a convulsing organization. Me and most other senior systems-engineer types had cold-calls from both Google and Amazon. Some of us took them up on that offer (not me).
It was during this time that I learned about how different the labor-market was for visa-workers.
Both the H-1B and I-140 visa require employer sponsorship. If you lose your employer, you need to get another job (transfer the visa sponsorship) within a specific time or you have to leave the US. Per my fellow coworkers, that time is four weeks. And that's four weeks to first-day-on-the-job, not four weeks to acceptance-letter-is-signed. Four weeks in which to do a complete job hunt with a company big enough to be able to deal with visas and the Department of Immigration. That is nearly impossible.
As a result, all of my coworkers here on visa were job-hunting just in case they got a layoff. All of them. Half of them had married (always other visa-workers) and bought houses here. Due to the DC metro area being one of the most expensive housing markets in the US, you need two full-time incomes in order to afford anything of any size; so having one of the earners leave the country was a recipe for financial disaster.
My department was one making buckets of money for the company, so we didn't take a layoff at all. Even so, we lost about a quarter of our people due to better offers coming in on that just-in-case job-hunt. The other quarter left due to not wanting to put up with the reorganizations.
Some visa-workers in other departments got layoffs. The rumor mill said they were offered a paid ticket back to their home country in addition to whatever other severance benefits they were giving out. No help with the expense of an international move.
After the layoffs were done and the reorganizations had completed to the point that the org-chart wasn't being updated on a weekly basis, upper management got down to the serious business of trying to keep the people they had. Part of this effort was to rebase salaries to market averages. There were some big movements.
One coworker had been out of the job market for about seven years to raise her son. When she got back into it, she was hired on as an 'associate systems engineer' at a salary of around $70K/year. Fast-forward five years, and she was still at that job-title, but doing a senior systems-engineer's work and getting paid $73K. They reallocated her up to a 'lead systems engineer' title and a salary of $100K.
Another coworker was here on visa and hired as a 'systems engineer'. He was being paid $85K. The full citizen in the chair next to him, also a 'systems engineer', was being paid $102K. After discussing salaries one memorable afternoon (this is legal, don't let anyone tell you otherwise), we learned that all of our visa-people were underpaid versus the citizens. When the reallocation came around, most of this disparity went away.
Why did it get that bad?
Capitalism, of course. The job-market for visa-workers is limited to those companies with skilled enough HR departments to deal with immigration paperwork. This greatly reduces the number of companies they can work for, which in turn reduces upward pressure on salaries. It also means that those companies who have figured out the paperwork problem have access to a skilled job market with less salary pressure than the greater one, so they tend to go deep into it.
The other factor at play here is the internal raise process. As has been mentioned elsewhere, you get your best raises when you change companies. While salaries in the overall job market had been raising, internal ones were not raising as much. People who don't job-hunt until provoked were falling behind their peers and not noticing because talking salary is taboo.
How can we prevent this disparity?
By talking salaries more often. The visa job-market is fundamentally different than the one for full citizens, but our costs-of-living are still the same. By talking about salaries and visa-status the labor market's supply, us workers, can learn which companies are known to exploit visa workers and which are more likely to treat them the same as the citizens. It means being pushy during negotiations, but that's how you stop this kind of exploitation.