Disney has canceled recent plans to replace employees in 30 technology positions with workers from an agency known for outsourcing jobs to immigrants on temporary work visas.
Employees of Disney/ABC Television in New York and Burbank first heard of the layoffs in late May. In recent weeks, before the company reversed course, some of the employees were asked to help train their successors, mostly via teleconference but also in person in some cases.
Disney had planned to post nearly a dozen new jobs in the wake of the layoffs. The company offered few details on its reasoning for the decision.
"In the course of making any technology upgrade, we look at a myriad of options to achieve our goals," said Disney/ABC spokesman Kevin Brockman. "We're clearly on an alternative path to achieve those goals that we think is better suited to our business."
The replacement workers initially tapped for the Disney positions were from Cognizant Technology Solutions, a New Jersey information technology services firm that draws heavily from India to fill its employee pool. Cognizant did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although it's unclear how many of the Cognizant workers were U.S. citizens or Indian nationals, the employment reshuffle has sparked more debate about the U.S. government's controversial H-1B visa program.
Only 85,000 H-1B visas -- designed so foreigners with specialty skills can fill job vacancies left by a domestic skills gap -- are granted each year. But critics complain that U.S. employers exploit loopholes in the system to hire cheaper labor from abroad at the expense of American workers.
The Disney/ABC flip-flop was first reported by the Computerworld website, but it's not the only time Disney's employment of immigrant workers has come under scrutiny.
In January, Disney eliminated 250 technology positions at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Fla., and replaced them with 320 new roles. Some 120 workers were rehired, 40 retired or moved to other companies and 90 took severance packages.
Several affected workers complained that, in exchange for severance packets, they were asked to train younger, less-compensated replacements from India.
The practice has also stirred controversy at Southern California Edison Co. Last week, the federal Department of Labor began investigating the circumstances of hundreds of layoffs last year at the utility, looking into the Rosemead utility's dealings with outsourcing companies Tata and Infosys.
Keith Barrett, who had been a technology employee at Disney World for more than a decade until he was forced into retirement earlier this year, posted on his Google+ account that companies should address skills shortages by repositioning or training existing employees.
"In short; if you are laying off your good performing and long term staff, especially in bulk numbers, and replacing them with inexperienced, cheaper non-hires, you aren't using the H-1B program to increase your staff by hiring rare skills," Barrett wrote. "You are using it to cut costs."