Donald Trump

Trump to target skilled foreign workers with ‘buy American, hire American’ executive order

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 10:44pm

US President Donald Trump plans to sign a “buy American, hire American” executive order, directing federal agencies on Tuesday to reform the way that a key foreign worker program hands out visas.

The order will target the H-1B visa program for skilled workers, used largely by the tech industry in a way that the White House says undercuts the pay of skilled US workers.

The executive order will also compel federal government agencies to close loopholes and reduce waivers that allow industrial products such as unfinished steel into government procurement markets.

The order tasks US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with overseeing reviews of free-trade agreements with nearly 60 countries and procedures used by federal agencies to issue waivers and exceptions to laws meant to ensure American-made content is used in government contracts, senior White House officials said in a briefing in Washington DC. Many waivers to these laws have been granted as part of trade agreements meant to provide reciprocal access to procurement markets.

Spouses of skilled workers on H-1B visas could lose employment rights in US

“The available evidence suggests that the US is a big, net loser in the global government procurement market,” said one official briefing reporters about the “Buy American” portion of the upcoming executive order. “For the first time, each agency may consider the effect of foreign-sourced dumped or injuriously subsidised content in the determination of the low bid.”

“Hopefully, our trading partners will wake up and engage in more fair and reciprocal behaviour,” the official said, without saying which countries appear to be violating the reciprocity principle.

Reviews must be completed within 220 days, and findings anytime within that period may prompt Trump to rescind or renegotiate trade agreements shown to have favoured the other side.

The “Hire American” portion of the order seeks to implement administrative changes to the way foreign guest worker visas, H-1B visas in particular, are issued, said another official at the briefing. The Trump administration wants the system to change from a lottery to one that awards H-1B visas based on skills and salary benchmarks.

The official called out Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, and Cognizant for using the lottery system to bring in workers for entry-level positions, which he said has the effect of undercutting salary standards for US workers.

“Those companies have an average [annual] wage for H1B visas of between US$60,000 and US$65,000,” the official said. “By contrast, the average Silicon Valley software engineer’s wage is probably around US$150,000.”

Hongkongers, mainland Chinese likely to face stricter scrutiny to obtain US visas

H-1B visas are intended for foreign nationals in “specialty” occupations that generally require higher education, which according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) includes, but is not limited to, scientists, engineers or computer programmers. The government awards 65,000 H-1B visas by lottery every year and randomly distributes another 20,000 to graduate student workers.

The scheme has traditionally been dominated by workers from India, who take about two-thirds of the visas, with Chinese workers a distant second.

Companies say they use such visas to recruit top talent. More than 15 per cent of Facebook’s US employees in 2016 used a temporary work visa, according to a Reuters analysis of Labour Department filings.

But a majority of the visas are awarded to outsourcing firms, sparking criticism by sceptics who say those firms use the visas to fill lower-level IT jobs. Critics also say the lottery system benefits outsourcing firms that flood the system with mass applications.

Senior officials at all agencies involved in the reviews covered by the executive orders will be held “strictly accountable” for finding administrative solutions to immigration and procurement procedures that have undercut US wages and job opportunities. Agencies will also be expected to provide recommendations for legislation that will help further these goals.

Trump is scheduled to sign the executive order on Tuesday at a Snap-On Tools facility in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the manufacturer of power tools and diagnostics software is headquartered.

Additional reporting by Reuters