WAYNE (New Jersey) • When the United States Congress designed temporary work visa programmes, the idea was to bring in foreigners with hard-to-find skills who would help US companies grow, and create jobs to expand the economy.
Now, however, some companies are bringing in workers to help move jobs out of the country.
For four weeks earlier this year, a young woman from India on a temporary visa sat elbow to elbow with an American accountant at Toys 'R' Us in New Jersey. The woman, an employee of a giant outsourcing company in India hired by Toys 'R' Us, studied and recorded the accountant's every keystroke, took screenshots of her computer, and detailed notes on how she issued payments for toys sold in the company's mega stores.
"She shadowed me everywhere, even to the ladies' room," said the accountant, 49, who had worked for the company for than 15 years.
By late June, eight workers from the outsourcing company, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), had produced intricate manuals for the jobs of 67 people, mainly in accounting. They returned to India to train TCS workers to take over, and perform those jobs there. The Toys 'R' Us employees in New Jersey were laid off.
A temporary visa programme known as H-1B allows US employers to hire foreign professionals with college degrees and "highly specialised knowledge", mainly in science and technology, to meet their needs for particular skills. Employers must sign a declaration that the foreign workers "will not adversely affect the working conditions" of Americans or lower their wages.
In recent years, however, global outsourcing and consulting firms have obtained thousands of temporary visas to bring in foreign workers to take over jobs held by American workers. The US Labour Department has opened an investigation into possible visa violations by contractors at Walt Disney and Southern California Edison, where immigrants replaced Americans in jobs.
But the Toys 'R' Us layoffs - and others under way at New York Life Insurance and other businesses - go further. They are examples of global outsourcing companies using temporary visas to bring in foreign workers without exceptional skills - according to current or former employees of Toys 'R' Us and New York Life - to help ship out jobs, mainly to India.
In recent years, many jobs lost have been in accounting and administration - although there is no shortage of qualified Americans.
Outsourcing firms, and the companies hiring them, say they are careful not to violate any laws. But some experts argue that the intent of the visas is being thwarted.
"At the very least, those are violations of the spirit of the law," said Mr Christine Brigagliano, a lawyer advising US companies on visas.
Ms Kathleen Waugh, spokesman for Toys 'R' Us, said staff reduction was part of "designing a streamlined, more efficient global organisation to make it fit for growth". She said the contractors were required to comply with "any and all immigration laws".
Temporary H-1B visas are limited to 85,000 each year. In the last five years, federal records show, most of the companies that received the largest share have been global outsourcing firms, including TCS, Infosys - another large Indian company - US-based Cognizant, and Accenture, a consulting operation incorporated in Ireland.
A 36-year-old accountant at Toys 'R' Us said a young Indian man assigned to shadow her appeared to have no extraordinary knowledge of accounting. His expertise was in observing and mapping what she did.
"He was watching me like a hawk," she said. "It took him a while to learn what I did." She added that she had a hard time maintaining her composure.
"I felt like, 'Why am I sitting here showing this man how to do my job, when they are taking it away from me, and sending it to India?'"
NEW YORK TIMES