Tech employees on visas face layoffs, instability, and the threat of deportation amid industry upheaval
Employee layoffs at some of the world’s biggest tech giants are churning up a flooded and volatile market. It’s a scary state for new employees and skilled mid-career professionals alike, and it’s having disastrous effects on hundreds of thousands of foreign workers(Opens in a new window) and visa holders. And, according to new reported estimates, that impact may be disproportionately devastating to a single population: Indian IT employees.
Reported by financial news site Mint, a number of “industry insiders” estimate that between 30 and 40 percent of IT layoffs(Opens in a new window) affected employees on temporary work status from India. Given the nationwide estimate of 200,000 IT employees impacted directly by layoffs since November, this means potentially 80,000 people now face the task of finding stable work within 60 days before being forced to go back to their countries of origin.
Most of these employees, including a huge swath of tech workers from China(Opens in a new window), are on non-immigrant work visas like the H-1B, a temporary three-year visa with an option for extension. In 2022, many tech workers and advocates protested the current congressional limits(Opens in a new window), and lack of oversight, for workers on visas like H-1B, which they say is frequently taken advantage of by in-need tech employers. This follows an industry uproar incited by a 2017 government decision to suspend H-1B visas(Opens in a new window), as well as an executive order signed by former President Donald Trump that required H-1B visas to be issued to higher-salaried and higher-educated employees(Opens in a new window), rather than through a lottery system. The foreign labor decisions of the Trump administration had rippling effects on women and spouses(Opens in a new window), as well,(Opens in a new window) and even incited global protests in countries relying on international work opportunities, like India.
Now, at the same time layoffs sweep over this band of already-approved employees and job opportunities become rarer and rarer(Opens in a new window), demand for new H-1B visas has increased, especially in tech fields. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, computer-related jobs accounted for nearly 70 percent(Opens in a new window) of approved H-1B recipients in 2021. For 2023, the government agency received 483,000 applications, a 57 percent increase, according to Bloomberg Law(Opens in a new window). The visas also are becoming less accessible to many, as the U.S. government announced its plan to increase fees for H-1B sponsors(Opens in a new window).
Employees navigating the sudden removal of both their sources of income and immigration status have been relying on networks of people cornered into similar situations. As Mint reported, some are seeking assistance through international organizations like the Global Indian Technology Professionals Association (GITPRO) and the Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIIDS), or networking websites for visa workers, like Go Zeno(Opens in a new window). Others are seeking out informal means to find these necessary jobs, through Google Forms and career sites like LinkedIn(Opens in a new window), TIME reported in December. Even law groups(Opens in a new window) are stepping up to assist employees in the hunt for visa-eligible work, while many search for immigration alternatives to their H-1B status(Opens in a new window).
The tech industry is no stranger to ethical debates on bottom-line figures and their human costs, as the recent tech workforce reductions coincide with industry-wide concerns over employee treatment. For example, the development of popular AI application ChatGPT using underpaid workers in Kenya exposed employees to violent and graphic online content. Other workforces, like call center employees based in countries like India and the Philippines, face ongoing online harassment and even physical threats(Opens in a new window) in the workplace. And mechanization that goes so far as to mask employees’ accents through robotic, “white-sounding” AI has contributed to the evolution of an increasingly faceless industry that’s now shedding its staff in droves.
But beyond the impersonal scale of massive layoffs and companies’ revenue goals are the lived realities of those doing skilled work — thousands of real people supporting real families with immediate needs, who are now scrambling to protect their futures.