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Asian-American workers: Beware bias, immigration scrutiny

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Hiring,Human Resources

Following 9/11, the EEOC paid particular attention to employment-discrimination backlash against employees who appeared to be Muslims or of Middle Eastern or South Asian ancestry. But now that effort appears to be broadening.

Until recently, the EEOC didn't view job discrimination against Asian-Americans as a widespread problem. But a new survey changed all that.

In a new EEOC/Gallup Poll of 1,250 Americans, 15 percent of respondents said they'd suffered job discrimination in the past year. The biggest surprise: Asian-American respondents cited the most incidents of discrimination (31 percent reported job bias at work).

That shocked EEOC officials because only 3 percent of racial discrimination claims are filed by Asians/Pacific Islanders, the classification used by the EEOC.

As a result, the EEOC is expected to launch an outreach and education campaign to teach Asian-Americans about their job-bias rights.

So, what's the reason for this undercurrent of dissatisfaction and apparent discrimination targeting Asians? At least two possibilities exist, and both are being addressed by different agencies:

Cultural differences. First, cultural differences among Asian-heritage employees discourage litigation, as well as historic acceptance of some discrimination. Plus, some Asian-Americans carry a desire to avoid direct confrontation. Breaking through some of those barriers will be key to the EEOC's efforts to encourage more Asian-American employees to step forward.

Work-visa issues. A second, less obvious, potential reason for the poll results lie in the use of specialized work visas for jobs in high demand, including high-tech jobs. Such visas are often used to bring in workers from Asian countries.

The visa program that brought many of these workers to the United States used to (until recently) allow U.S. employers to pay foreign workers the same wages they'd receive in their home country. It seems reasonable that Asian-Americans working on employer-sponsored visas would feel discriminated against when being paid much less than their co-workers.

It also seems reasonable that such workers would have a fear of voicing a complaint. After all, if your stay in this country is contingent on your employer's co-operation, suing isn't a good option.

How to comply

Recognize that Asian-Americans will become more aware of their job-discrimination rights. And that could lead to more bias claims from Asian workers.

Take the opportunity to remind employees that under Title VII it's illegal to harass employees or discriminate in an employment action (hiring, firing, promotion, work conditions, etc.) based on any person's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.

The EEOC's interpretation of its poll data is that Asians are reluctant to complain about discrimination. If this is true, then you must be extra vigilant for signs of harassment and intimidation against Asian-American workers, and then step in to correct the problem.

The second issue of employer-sponsored visas may be working itself out. Congress made some important changes to the visa program recently. It passed the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act that requires employers to pay work-visa employees the same as they would pay any other person in the position.

Traditionally, employers brought in workers under L-1B visas and placed them with other employers. That practice was widely seen as open to fraud and abuse. Employers obtaining L-1B visas for foreign workers must continue to exercise control over the employees.

Employers must also keep accurate and updated records on L-1B visa holders and provide them to the Department of Homeland Security.

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