04/01/2015 03:42 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Walmart Seeking Foreign Guest Workers To Fill U.S. Tech Jobs, AFL-CIO Finds


Walmart is famous for keeping labor costs down inside its more than 5,000 brick-and-mortar U.S. stores. According to a new report from the AFL-CIO, the world's largest retailer may have found a way to save money on its tech workers in the U.S., too.

Researchers at the labor federation found that Walmart has been submitting a growing number of applications for H-1B visas with the federal government. Such visas let U.S. companies employ foreign workers here temporarily, often in high-tech capacities and at lower wages than their American counterparts would typically fetch.

According to the research paper, Walmart filed 1,800 petitions for H-1B visas over the last eight years, with the annual number increasing from 79 in 2007 up to 513 in 2014. Over the same period, offshore outsourcing firms have filed nearly 15,000 such petitions for work in Bentonville, Arkansas, Walmart's corporate home. That includes companies such as Infosys and Cognizant, IT service firms that are among the top H-1B users.

Two caveats about those numbers: Bentonville's economy is wired around Walmart, but that doesn't necessarily mean all the applications were tied to Walmart work. And just because a company petitions for an H-1B visa, doesn't mean it secures one.

Walmart did not immediately comment on the AFL-CIO report. The labor federation has been a relentless critic of Walmart over the years. It has also fought to limit the number of H-1B visas that the government will allow, arguing that they depress wages.

"Walmart is driving down standards in the tech industry in the U.S. by using H-1B visas and contractors excessively," the report reads. "This keeps costs low and allows for IT guest workers to be paid less."

H-1B visas have become a flashpoint in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. U.S. businesses, and particularly tech companies such as Facebook, have been lobbying to raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas available, saying they can't find enough qualified U.S. workers to fill engineering and other tech positions. Worker advocacy groups and labor unions say these companies simply want to find a cheaper labor pool.

The same argument extends to a host of guestworker programs administered by the Labor Department, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Each year thousands of H-2B guestworkers, many of them Latino, come to the U.S. to work in jobs like landscaping and seafood packing at the bottom of the wage scale. H-1B tech workers, many of whom come from India, may be much better compensated than those workers, but critics of the program argue that it still allows companies to pay lower wages for a given profession.

"While H-1B visa workers may have more rights than H-2B workers, we've seen countless cases of H-1B tech workers being coerced and strung along," said Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer at the National Guestworker Alliance, a worker advocacy group.