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On Wednesday, Elon Musk gave Twitter employees just under 36 hours to decide if they would be leaving or committing to stay and build “a breakthrough Twitter 2.0.” This ultimatum came after more than 3,000 employees were laid off a week into Musk’s leadership. While more than a thousand employees are estimated to have quit, according to the New York Times, Twitter employees who rely on the company for work visas are left grappling with a Catch-22: either they choose to buckle up and embrace Twitter’s unsure future, or give up their jobs and leave the United States.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, around 300 employees at Twitter are working under the H-1B visa. The H-1B program allows foreign workers who are highly skilled in areas such as architecture, engineering, and economics to work in the United States. Many large tech companies in addition to Twitter, such as Amazon and Meta, employ H-1B workers. The recent tech layoffs have put H-1B workers in precarious positions, as they only have 60 days after losing employment or until their visa expires, whichever comes sooner, to find a new employer to sponsor their visa.
“I really feel bad for the people who are aghast at the way Musk has been managing the company but perhaps feel unable to raise their concerns, because they’ve seen what has happened when people do that before—they get unceremoniously fired,” David Widder, a PhD. student in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke to more than a hundred software engineers about the ethical concerns they face at work for a paper he is currently trying to publish. “Or feel like if they did raise their concerns, they might be let go and they have reasons why they can’t afford to have that happen. They have a mortgage to pay, kids to feed, dependents with health care needs that they need to keep their insurance or a visa status to protect them. These are all examples of ways in which software engineers, despite being powerful in the scheme of work, generally still might be in a difficult situation.”
Widder’s research explains how the structure of a program like H-1B leaves workers in a helpless position, where they may disagree with the ethics of the company’s management or the work they’re doing, but are unable to speak out or quit due to financial pressures and their immigration status.
One software engineer interviewed by Widder said that people “on H1Bs [often] need to find something [a job] within a very short period of time or actually have to leave the country. And when that happens, you end up taking whatever is available.”
“For companies to turn their backs on them now is particularly callous and destructive and undermines the trust talented people have around in the world in the hope of America and its opportunities,” a former Twitter employee told CNN.
Widder said it’s unfair to blame employees who remain at the company and that this situation only magnifies the “systemic sources of precarity” that affect employees and create a power differential between them and their employers.
“The framing of our paper is not about blaming software engineers for not speaking up or not raising an ethical concern they might have when they see it, it’s about asking why that is hard to do and what sort of systemic factors and unfair factors make that hard to do,” he said. “I’m concerned about some narratives emerging online where people talk about H-1B workers doing the dirty work. I don’t think that’s a fair or accurate framing of the current state at Twitter.”
The software engineers that participated in Widder’s research emphasized that the start to leveraging their power is through solidarity. “We had some participants talk about the fact that the work doesn’t get done without them. And as Twitter’s workforce is decimated, basically, I think we can remember that software does not maintain itself and software doesn’t get built by itself. We need software engineers’ labor to make software systems continue to work and continue to be built,” Widder said.
Now, labor and tech experts including Widder are encouraging remaining workers to unionize. Widder said, “Speaking from our research here, I think there’s a lot of power in recognizing the power of labor and that can look like a union, that can look like increased solidarity between workers who are at Twitter. Because the work doesn’t get done without them.”
In the UK, a third of Twitter employees are being represented by a trade union called Prospect. The union has written to the company asking for a meeting to be scheduled in order for them to discuss their concerns for the future of the company.
There has also been a class-action lawsuit filed against the social media giant, organized by former Twitter employees who claim that the company violated labor law and California state law for not providing advance notice or severance pay to terminated employees.
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