When Kim Singh left India to become a contract worker in Silicon Valley, he thought he would find a good job in the electronics industry. Instead, he found a high-tech sweatshop.
Singh worked for three different companies. Each got him an H1-B immigration visa, allowing him to work in the US as a software engineer. The first company, he says, withheld 25% of the salary from each of its immigrant engineers. “After each of us left, none of us received the money,” Singh alleges.
At the second company, “I worked seven days a week, with no overtime compensation. And the only ones required to work on weekends were the H-1B immigrants,” he says. The third company rented an apartment for four H1-B engineers in San Jose, charging each $1450 a month, while holding onto their passports. This company “threatened to send some back to India if they didn't get contracts. These workers … were in tears. They were nervous wrecks, ashamed to ask for money or help from their families back home.”
This year, Silicon Valley electronics giants have been pushing for more H1-B workers. Existing immigration law set a cap on the number of H1-B visas the industry can use to hire immigrant engineers. Two Senate bills, and one in the House, would increase that cap to about 300,000 workers a year, or even lift it entirely.
The word in Washington is that more contract workers for Silicon Valley is unstoppable in Congress. Both Republicans and Democrats want the industry's substantial campaign contributions in an election year. Anyway, the proposal hurts no one, we hear.
But while contract labor boosts corporate bottom lines, it has a devastating impact on workers.
Singh's description makes it plain that the conditions of contract workers themselves, even white collar engineers, are abusive, and their salaries low.
African-American and Latino engineers, who have waged a protracted effort to break down discriminatory barriers in high-tech hiring, are also protesting. Civil rights groups point out that increasing the number of H1-B visas will make it more difficult to open up jobs for engineers of color, in an industry where the percentage of African-American and Latino engineers is very low.
For India and the Philippines, the source countries for most H1-B workers, the continued loss of high-skilled engineers recruited by Silicon Valley contributes to brain drain. “These programs are selling our human potential,” says Anuradha Mittal, Indian-born co-director of Oakland's Food First. “Our educational system produces highly-skilled workers, who then leave to become the working poor in America, while breaking down our ability to industrialize our own country. We wind up subsidizing US industry.”
Countering these arguments, high tech lobbyists claim the industry faces a crippling labor shortage, threatening US economic growth. The problem isn't an absolute scarcity of labor, however, but a shortage of people willing to provide high skills at the salary industry wants to pay.
AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson asks why companies themselves don't train workers for vacant jobs. “They use this program to keep workers in a position of dependence,” she charges. “And because these workers are often hired under individual contracts, US labor law says they don't even have the right to organize.”
For high-tech industry, that is a key attraction of the H1-B program. US engineers used to consider themselves professionals, a cut above unionized blue-collar workers. This year, however, thousands of Boeing Corp. engineers mounted one of the most successful strikes in recent history, using their hard-to-replace job skills as leverage to increase salaries.
Silicon Valley is clearly loath to see those events repeated. And contract labor is a good protection against strikes and unions.
Like other contract labor programs for lower-wage farm and factory laborers, the H1-B program gives employers the power, not only to hire and fire workers, but also to grant them legal immigration status. If workers do something the employer doesn't like, whether organizing a union or filing discrimination complaints, they not only lose their jobs, but their right to stay in the US. In effect, an employer can deport those workers who stand up for their rights.
For this reason, Cesar Chavez sought the end of the old bracero program, under which growers brought contract farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and 50s. Chavez was only able to begin organizing the United Farm Workers when workers became free of the contract labor system.
But in Congress today, agricultural interests have already introduced bills that would move back towards the bracero era. Other industries are also lining up. “We have a vast labor shortage,” declares Omaha meatpacker Angelo Fili. “I think a guestworker program would be good for our industry and good for the country.”
Wages in meatpacking have remained flat for two decades.
While Democrats and Republicans quarrel over the details of these bills, both parties believe US immigration law should be revamped in order to supply immigrant labor to US industry. Even some immigrant rights groups have been convinced to support this notion. In April, Henry Cisneros, past secretary of housing and urban development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support H1-B expansion in return for a package of long-sought reforms of immigration law.
This is a bad deal. The US desperately needs immigration reform, including these proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, for fair treatment for late applicants for the last immigration amnesty, and others. But getting these reforms by supporting contract labor will only increase the number of workers who are unable to organize and exercise their rights. By so doing, it will drive wages down for immigrants and native-born alike.
Instead, the AFL-CIO proposed last February a much further-reaching reform, that would benefit workers instead of making them more vulnerable. It has proposed a general amnesty, to give undocumented families already here the right to come out of the shadows. And it has proposed ending employer sanctions, so that all workers can exercise their right to organize and protest unfair and exploitative treatment.
Those proposals should be augmented by others to make legal immigration and family reunification easier, so that immigrants don't have to choose between crossing the border illegally and becoming contract laborers.
In the era of the global economy, immigrants are going to continue to arrive in the United States, driven from their homes by war and poverty. But instead of turning them into indentured servants, immigration law should ensure that all workers enjoy the same rights, free of discrimination and second-class status. The best guarantee of a high-wage economy is enforcing workers' right to organize, for immigrants and native-born alike.
If Silicon Valley companies take the millions they're pouring into political contributions, and raise salaries instead, they'll find they get all the workers they need.