Monday, June 29, 2009

Geographic Mobility And Labor Rights

I've taken a step back from posts about Rust Belt immigration. GlobalPittsburgh does a great job of promoting a more cosmopolitan Southwestern Pennsylvania. Via his own blog, Richard Herman has ramped up his crusade to attract foreign-born talent to Northeast Ohio. Check out Richard's latest about Pittsburgh economic game-changer Audrey Russo. I'm delighted to yield the floor to bloggers much more dedicated to this issue than I am.

My own blog started out exploring brain drain from Pittsburgh and ended up being about the geographic mobility of labor. Thus, my interest in immigration. Let me explain.

Since graduate school, I've been fascintated with the intersection between human rights law, citizenship and migration. I operate under the assumption that the greater the geographic mobility of workers, the less need there is for worker protections such as unions. I also believe that draining pools of captive labor is good for regional economic development. In the United States, workers (both legal and illegal) native to other countries are among the most exploited:

The H-1B visa program inspires heated debate, especially online. The program is controversial for a number of reasons. Some critics say the program allows U.S. companies to import cheaper labor, dampening wages and displacing U.S. workers. Others say it facilitates outsourcing, as it allows Indian-born tech workers to train in the U.S. and then return home and perform the work there. Still others point to mounting evidence of fraud in the program and a lack of government oversight.

[Norm Matloff of the University of California, Davis] stresses that the problem is not fraud or crime but the H-1B visa law itself. He says that the law as currently written allows H-1B visa holders to receive below-market wages. The policy also allows for age discrimination as older U.S. tech workers are displaced by a younger workforce from abroad. "Though the industry lobbyists portray it as a remedy for labor shortages and as a means of hiring 'the best and the brightest' from around the world, the visa is used to access workers that cost less and are de facto indentured servants," Matloff writes on his blog.

Matloff is a controversial figure. If his goal is to decrease the numbers emigrating to the US, then he's wrong. But I agree with his critique of the H-1B visa program. Captive labor pools hurt American workers. Give talent a Green Card, not a temporary work permit.

Providing all workers with the same rights puts them on a level playing field, shrinking the wage arbitrage opportunities for management. Voters in Western Pennsylvania fail to understand the importance of geographic mobility:

Lawmakers will gather at the White House next week for a working session on immigration reform, a meeting that has been highly anticipated by Latino leaders eager for President Obama to honor his campaign promise to put millions of undocumented workers on a "pathway to citizenship." But many Democrats are now concluding that they may well not have the muscle to pass such a controversial measure -- at least not immediately, and possibly not until after the 2010 midterm election. ...

... The biggest obstacle to speedy passage of a citizenship plan, according to interviews with lawmakers and Capitol Hill strategists, is the House. Democrats hold a wide majority there, but at least 40 members represent moderate or conservative swing districts with few Latino voters where legalization plans are unpopular and often derided as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

"This a very, very difficult issue," said Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat elected in 2006 from rural western Pennsylvania. "The Democratic Party is doing everything they can to capture this very fast-growing community, and I understand that. But I'm not in that camp. I made it clear that I was going to take a very hard line on this, and my district takes a hard line."

The ideological stance is self-defeating. The more above-the-table work, the better the wages. Underground labor is competing with legal citizens. The threat of deportation is enough to accept drastically reduced pay. If there is no financial advantage to hiring an undocumented worker, then there won't be jobs enticing people to cross the international border illegally.

Americans first puts workers last.


Stephen Gross said...

My experience with the world of h1b is limited to the world of software. anecdotally, my impression is that the quality of talent depends a lot less on nation of origin, and a lot more on aptitude and talent.

As far as offering green cards more openly: the concern as always is whether we can accommodate the influx of residents it would bring. Can we?

Jim Russell said...

The issue of accommodation is almost moot. Given the scale of the looming demographic crisis (see report in latest Economist), we can't afford to turn talent away. I'm tired of Rust Belt cities shooting themselves in the foot.

Jim Russell said...

Audrey Russo, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, sent along the following comment via e-mail:

My hypothesis is: when we encourage citizenship, hence green cards, to those who have been educated here, attend our schools, participate and leverage the resources in our communities, the more we will not only collectively embrace change, we will have a highly competitive, lucrative and innovative community.