US tech layoffs upending life of foreign guest workers

The stringent conditions attached to visas such as H1b enjoins that if they lose their job, they have to find alternative work in 60 days from the time they are laid off - failing which they will have to self-deport or risk being out of status

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 18 Jan 2023, 10:27 PM

Massive layoffs, particularly in the tech sector, are rocking America, presaging a tough 2022-2023 for the US (and global) economy into which analysts have already written a recession. Microsoft, a stable, established, cash-rich company, will become the latest to cull its workforce this week, with plans to ease out up to 5 per cent of its 221,000 employees. This would put more than 10,000 of its staff out of work. It joins fellow Washington state giant Amazon, which is laying off 18,000 workers, creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom in a city that during the so-called Boeing Bust in the 1970s famously came up with a billboard that read, "Will the last person leaving SEATTLE turn out the lights please?"

Back then, Boeing, which was the region's largest employer with more than 100,000 employees in 1967, flew down to a low of 38,690 workers in April 1971, leading to the sardonic hoarding. But the grim foreboding was eventually overcome. Microsoft, booted up in 1975, moved to nearby Redmond in 1986; Amazon began to flow in 1994, and in between, companies such as Starbucks, Nordstrom, Costco, and more recent internet-fueled start-ups such as, RealNetworks, generated an economic boom that allowed Seattle to rediscover its mojo. The lights-out hoarding became a joke.

But word out of the region is that commercial buildings and residential apartments are starting to empty out again, as they are down Interstate 5 in California where Facebook-owner Meta, Twitter, Salesforce, and Netflix are among the dozens of companies handing out pink slips to workers who were going rah-rah before the recession hit. By one account, there have been more than 150,000 layoffs from more than 1,000 tech companies last year, and the pain has just begun. According to one survey, six in 10 companies say they will lay off staff in 2023, with 57 per cent estimating a 30 per cent cut in workforce.

Remarkably, the story behind the layoffs goes back to the start of the Covid alarm in March 2020 when the formal economy, particularly travel, hospitality, and in-person retail shopping, began shutting down. This led to a surge in demand for digital services, and companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta hired thousands of tech workers to deal with the rapid rise in online activity from a locked-down population. Now that the Covid alarm has passed and consumers are reverting to their pre-pandemic spending patterns, many companies are finding they are overstaffed to the extent it is pinching their bottomline. Ergo, mass layoffs.

Doubtless, as in the case of Boeing, which now employs nearly 150,000 people, there will eventually be a revival given the centrality in our life of technology which is not going to diminish anytime soon -- if at all. But in the intervening months or years or however long it takes, tens of thousands of workers, particularly foreign employees, many of whom are prospective immigrants, are going to have their life upended. The horror stories are already starting to bubble out.

According to the American Immigration Council, foreign-born employees account for nearly a quarter of the 10.8 million workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. More than half this 2.5 million cohort -- many from the Indian subcontinent -- is in America on guest worker visas. When they are laid off, as has been happening in the tech world, their life is uprooted.

Of course, there will be a recovery. Jobs will return, eventually in even greater numbers as it happened with Boeing. But foreign guest workers do not have the liberty of gutting it out for months, much less years. The stringent conditions attached to visas such as H1b enjoins that if they lose their job, they have to find alternative work in 60 days from the time they are laid off -- failing which they will have to self-deport or risk being out of status. And not just any job mind you; it has to be one they are eligible for and for which no qualified American is available.

This two-month hell zone is what thousands of foreign guest workers in the tech world are going through right now – with little sympathy from any quarter given that American workers are hurting too from the layoffs. For many professions, this means jettisoning friends, neighbours, leases, mortgages, school admissions (if they have children) and shipping back to their home country in the hope they will be able to return some day to bankroll a profligate America that has benefited immeasurably from immigrant enterprise. For some, it also represents an opportunity – of bringing back home the learning and skill sets they absorbed in America. Many unicorns in China and India are founded by those who were disdained by the United States. In either case, it is America’s loss.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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