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Fury rises at Disney over use of foreign workers

Patrick Thibodeau | April 30, 2015
At the end of October, IT employees at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts were called, one-by-one, into conference rooms to receive notice of their layoffs.

At the end of October, IT employees at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts were called, one-by-one, into conference rooms to receive notice of their layoffs. Multiple conference rooms had been set aside for this purpose, and in each room an executive read from a script informing the worker that their last day would be Jan. 30, 2015.

Some workers left the rooms crying; others appeared shocked. This went on all day. As each employee received a call to go to a conference room, others in the office looked up sometimes with pained expressions. One IT worker recalls a co-worker mouthing "no" as he walked by on the way to a conference room.

What follows is a story of competing narratives about the restructuring of Disney's global IT operations of its parks and resorts division. But the focus is on the role of H-1B workers. Use of visa workers in a layoff is a public policy issue, particularly for Disney.

Disney CEO Bob Iger is one of eight co-chairs of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a leading group advocating for an increase in the H-1B visa cap. Last Friday, this partnership was a sponsor of an H-1B briefing at the U.S. Capitol for congressional staffers. The briefing was closed to the press.

One of the briefing documents handed out at the congressional forum made this claim: "H-1B workers complement — instead of displace — U.S. Workers." It explains that as employers use foreign workers to fill "more technical and low-level jobs, firms are able to expand" and allow U.S. workers "to assume managerial and leadership positions."

The document was obtained by Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a longtime critic of the H-1B program. He posted it on his blog.

Disney says its restructuring wasn't about displacing workers, but was intended to shift more IT resources to projects involving innovation. That involves hiring many new people to fill new roles. Prior to the reorganization, 28% of Disney's IT staff were in roles focused on new capabilities; after this reorganization, that figure was 65%, a source at Disney said.

"We have restructured our global technology organization to significantly increase our cast member focus on future innovation and new capabilities, and are continuing to work with leading technical firms to maintain our existing systems as needed," Jacquee Wahler, a Walt Disney World spokesperson, said in a statement.

Disney officials did not want to comment about the situation beyond that statement.

From the perspective of five laid-off Disney IT workers, all of whom agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, Disney cut well-paid and longtime staff members, some who had been previously singled out for excellence, as it shifted work to contractors. These contractors used foreign labor, mostly from India. The laid-off workers believe the primary motivation behind Disney's action was cost-cutting.

 

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