Disney lays off 250 IT workers, after they trained foreign replacements

About 250 of the technical workers who create the magic behind Walt Disney World in Florida were laid off this year to make way for foreign workers hired on H-1B visas, according to a report in the New York Times.

Congress debates merits of temporary work visa H-1B while business lobbies for expanded program

A children's chorus sings It's a Small World at Walt Disney World in Florida. Behind the scenes, Disney laid off its IT workers so it could hire foreign employees on H-1B visas. (Matt Stroshan/Walt Disney World/Associated Press)

About 250 of the technical workers who create the magic behind Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., were laid off this year to make way for foreign workers hired on H-1B visas, according to a report in the New York Times.

The H-1B visa, the U.S.'s answer to Canada's temporary foreign worker program, is popular among companies wanting employees with technology skills.

It's so popular that Congress is debating the merits of the program, which is capped at 85,000 visas a year. 

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has come out against the H-1B program, saying it is being used to displace U.S. workers.

In the case of the Disney employees, they were asked to train their replacements, hired from India through outsourcing firm HCL America.

Disney presented the changes as a reorganization and said it was opening new jobs for those laid off, but most who got pink slips say they're still unemployed.

Public debate about visas

"I just couldn't believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs exactly," one former worker told the Times.

The Disney story is bound to galvanize opposition to H-1B visas, which are meant to be used by companies seeking specialized skills.

A group of U.S. senators called for an investigation of recent "H-1B-driven layoffs" in a letter in April, saying they have seen an increase in such layoffs in the past year. They said the motivation is the ability to pay lower wages for highly skilled people.

And a Senate judiciary committee earlier this year heard testimony about several firms where workers on visas replaced entire IT departments, including Southern California Edison, Infosys and Northeast Utilities.

Meanwhile, a business lobby backed by technology companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Google, is asking for the program to be expanded. Currently the visas are awarded on a lottery system, and that has businesses entering multiple applications in an effort to get access to foreign workers. 

Robert A. Iger, chair of Walt Disney Co. is a co-chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy, which is pushing for an increase in the number of temporary work visas granted every year.
 

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