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October 26, 1999
Kennedy Complains Of Low Wages In Silicon Valley
A P Kamath in Washington
Senator Edward Kennedy, who is leading a fight in the Congress to increase the $ 5.15 minimum hourly wage in America by $ one, says he cannot understand why Silicon Valley pays an average 40,000 a year to high-tech workers brought over on temporary visas.
He was discussing last week Silicon Valley's claims that it is in dire shortage of high-tech workers, and its request to the Congress to increase the current 115,000-visa ceiling.
"There's not one graduate of Harvard Law School who starts off making less than $ 100,000,'' said Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts, adding that low salaries in high-tech firms was "surprising," given the industry's complaints of a shortage of workers.
Silicon Valley is yet to respond to Kennedy's comments. But the high-tech barons speak eloquently about the business and political leaders who have supported the relaxation of the ceiling.
Among these are Bill Gates, George W Bush and a number of leaders belonging to both parties -- Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California and Phil Gramm, Republican from Texas.
However, Washington insiders believe that the pressure to increase high-tech visas is not working.
An alliance of labor leaders and members of Congress belonging to the Democrats and Republicans is determined to fight the demand for more visas.
Among the strongest opponents of the demand is Lamar Smith, Republican from Texas, who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee.
He strongly opposes further high-tech (H-1B) visa increases, and is determined not to move any pro-hike bill in the few weeks left before Congress adjourns.
Smith pointed out there was a high level of visa fraud and that many people not fully qualified came to America through false paperwork. He also cited the recent admission by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it mistakenly granted 10,000 to 20,000 extra H-1B visas this year.
There are several bills before the Congress to increase the number of quotas from 115,000 this year (the cap was reached in June) but the opposition to higher numbers is increasing. Senators such as Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham who wants the cap be removed, or at least doubled, are finding it difficult to gather supporters.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, believes there is a shortage of 350,000 high-tech employees.
The 115,000 cap for the current year will revert by the end of the year to the 1998 cap, half the present number. As a result, Silicon Valley is warning that the crisis will worsen in the first year of the new millennium.
Immigration authorities were not able to give the exact number of visa receivers from India for the current year but Silicon Valley insiders believe about 50 per cent of high-tech visa holders are from India.
Dianne Feinstein says high-tech bosses in Silicon Valley insist that there is a perennial shortage of skilled computer graduates from American schools. While she supports the increase of visas, she wants an assurance from the industry that it will help improve the standard of computer education in America.
Silicon Valley leaders have told the senator and other influential members of the Congress that some of the bigger firms in the Valley are trying to improve the standard of computer education in America and lure more students to study for high-tech jobs. A handful of Silicon Valley firms have set aside over $ 200 million to improve school and college learning, to hire better teachers and to offer incentives to students to excel.
But they warn that the efforts could take nearly a decade to bear fruit. Meanwhile, couldn't India and Hong Kong help, they ask.
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