This IT worker had to train an H-1B replacement

U.S. workers protested job losses to foreign workers by displaying American flags in their cubicles

This is the story of an IT worker who was replaced by a worker on an H-1B visa, one of a number of visa holders, mostly from India, who took jobs at this U.S. company. Computerworld is not going to use the worker's name or identify the companies involved to protect the former employee from retaliation. For purposes of this story, the worker has been given initials -- A.B. (They're not the person's real initials.)

At A.B.'s company, about 220 IT jobs have been lost to offshore outsourcing over the last year. A.B. is telling the story because, initially, there was little knowledge among fellow employees about H-1B visa holders and how they are used. They didn't know that offshore outsourcing firms are the largest users of H-1B visas, or exactly how this visa facilitates IT job losses in the U.S.

"I think once we learned about it, we became angrier toward the U.S. government than we were with the people that were over here from India," A.B. said, "because the government is allowing this."

The IT workers at this firm first learned of the offshore outsourcing threat through rumors. Later, the IT staff was called into an auditorium and heard directly from the CIO about the plan to replace them. It would take months for the transition to be completed, in part because of some new system installations.

Many younger IT workers found jobs and left. Mainframe workers were apparently in demand and also able to find new jobs. But older workers with skills in open systems, storage and SAN faced a harder time. About half the IT staffers, mostly the older ones, would stay to the end.

Training the replacement workers involved holding morning-long WebEx meetings several times a week with offshore outsourcing staff based in India. The sessions were recorded as details about the environment, including diagrams and scripts, were shared.

As they moved closer to the termination date for the U.S. workers, the overseas employees would follow or shadow, via WebEx sessions, everything an IT worker did during the day. The outsourcing firm's onshore staff helped to coordinate these efforts, but also worked to untangle the meaning of some of the questions.

The overseas workers did not appear to have much practical experience, and the same questions were asked repeatedly, A.B. said.

Before they lost their jobs, A.B.'s co-workers decided to made a subtle and symbolic protest over what was happening: As the H-1B visa workers gradually took over the offices once occupied by U.S. workers, one employee brought in a bunch of small American flags on sticks.

The flags were retrofitted so they could fit into the walls of the cubicles.

(Computerworld viewed a photograph of the cubicle flags, but decided not to publish it to protect A.B's identity.)

The flags were displayed, cubicle after cubicle, much like way flags are hung on homes in a residential neighborhoods on the 4th of July. They were visible to anyone walking down the hall. "That was the only thing that we could do," A.B. said. "We felt that we were making a statement. But to be honest, I don't think the Indian workers fully understood what was going on."

To illustrate this point, A.B. recounted a conversation with an offshore outsourcing visa holder. A.B. worked directly with one of the offshore firm's visa employees, whose job it was to help train the overseas workers.

"I know he was over here to do a job," A.B. explained. "I treated him as a colleague, even though I was resentful."

The offshore outsourcing employee was pleasant, and a couple of weeks before A.B.'s job ended, he asked: "That Monday, you are going to another job?"

"I said, 'No, I'm not going to another job," A.B. recalled. "'You are taking my job. I don't have another job to go to.'" A.B. explained that as an older worker it would be difficult to get another full-time position.

The offshore outsourcing worker later sent A.B. a Facebook friend request. "I don't think he comprehended the situation over here -- that we were losing our jobs, we didn't have jobs to go to," A.B. said.

The Facebook friend request was not accepted.

In the last month, the offshore outsourcing workers, again via WebEx, essentially took over A.B.'s job. It became A.B.'s role to follow along to make sure that the offshore workers executed various tasks correctly.

While this was going on, more and more H-1B workers appeared at the company, filling more of the offices.

Before the offshore outsourcing had begun, there was an internal study to compare the costs of insourcing versus outsourcing. A.B. did not see the study, but wonders what would happen if the U.S. government were to impose restrictions on the H-1B visa and raise the cost of using it, and whether that could change the economics of offshoring and encourage more insourcing.

A.B. talked about hopes for getting U.S. lawmakers to visit the company and count the number of Indian workers and the number of American workers. Efforts to arrange meetings with lawmakers were unsuccessful.

"They are going to find more Indian workers than American workers," A.B. said. "For every India worker that's there, that used to be an American."

The American flags have since been removed from the cubicle walls.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Read more about it outsourcing in Computerworld's IT Outsourcing Topic Center.

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