BIG CORPORATIONS BEHAVING BADLY PART 2

In my previous post, I focused on the big Wall St. corporations’ efforts to weaken financial regulations and consumer protections. In this post, I’ll share two much less visible examples of the power of big corporations to tilt the playing field in their favor:

  • H-1B visas
  • Consumer agreements and employee contracts

First, large corporations are dominating and gaming the H-1B visa program set up to help US companies hire foreign workers with special skills needed for their businesses that they are unable to find among US citizens. Only 85,000 of these visas are issued each year and many small companies with such needs are being shut out by large corporations requesting tens of thousands of the visas. It used to be that companies could apply and get one of these visas at any point during the year when the need arose. Now, immediately after the application process starts on April 1 each year, big corporations request thousands of visas so that a week later applications have already exceeded the year’s supply. [1]

Just twenty corporations took nearly 40% of the visas last year, about 32,000 of them, with one company applying for over 14,000. Thirteen of these 20 corporations are global outsourcing operations that typically bring in their employees from India to fulfill large contracts with US corporations that are outsourcing customer contact, marketing, or other functions. Their dominance and gaming of the system mean that many of the 10,000 other companies, many of them small businesses, that want and need these visas can’t get them.

These large corporations’ claims that they can’t find US citizens to perform these jobs is somewhat suspect. It seems likely that in some cases they simply want to pay the foreign workers less than they would have to pay Americans to do these jobs. Furthermore, a number of these corporations aren’t actually US corporations; they have their headquarters in India or Ireland, for example.

On a different front, many of the agreements that consumers must sign or agree to to shop online, rent a car, put a relative in a nursing home, or to get a credit card, cell phone, or many other products and services, contain a clause that goes something like this: “the company may elect to resolve any claim by individual arbitration.” Increasingly, this language is also showing up in contracts individuals must sign to get a job. This means that the corporate employer or provider of the product or service can force employees and consumers to resolve any complaint, problem, or claim, including ones that may involve fraud, illegality, or serious risk to the individual, through a corporate-controlled arbitration process and as an individual (i.e., not through any group action such as a class-action lawsuit).

This prevents the individual from going to court, from suing, and from joining with others in a class-action lawsuit. Class-action lawsuits, where a group of individuals who have been similarly harmed by a corporation’s actions band together to bring a lawsuit, are often the only realistic way to fight the power and deep pockets of a large corporation. Many attempts to bring class-action lawsuits have been rejected by the courts due to such arbitration clauses, including ones against Time Warner Cable for unauthorized charges on customers’ bills, AT&T for excessive cancellation fees, a travel booking website for price fixing, and ones for predatory lending, wage theft, and multiple cases of race and sex discrimination. The evidence indicates that once a class-action suit is blocked, most individuals simply drop their claims because they aren’t worth pursuing on an individual basis given the time and effort required and the small likelihood of winning any significant compensation.

“This is among the most profound shifts in our legal history. Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach,” according to US District Judge William Young, a Reagan appointee. The effort to prevent class-action lawsuits was led by a coalition of credit card companies and retailers; it has been underway for 10 years. The Attorneys General of 16 states have written to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) warning that “unlawful business practices” could flourish with the growing inability to use class-action lawsuits to seek compensation for victims. [2]

In October, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau outlined rules to prevent financial corporations from banning class-action lawsuits in consumer agreements. Wall St. and the US Chamber of Commerce immediately mobilized to block the CFPB’s effort.

Large corporations are continuously working to gain benefits for themselves at a cost to consumers, workers, and small businesses. I urge you to contact your elected officials and tell them that big corporations don’t need or deserve a playing field that’s tipped in their favor. If anything, the field should be tipped in favor of the little guy – individuals and small companies.

[1]       Preston, J., 11/11/15, “Top companies ‘game’ visa system, leaving smaller firms out of luck,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]       Silver-Greenberg, J., & Gebeloff, R., 11/1/15, “Hidden in fine print, clause stacks deck against consumers,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

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