30 October 2014, IEEE Spectrum

California has a migrant worker problem. Reading that statement you’d likely picture a farmworker from Mexico or Central America. But you’d be wrong. It’s migrant tech workers, holders of H-1B visas, mostly from India, who are being abused.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) together with NBC Bay Area have been looking at tech immigrants to Silicon Valley—and elsewhere in the U.S.—for a year. And what they have found isn’t pretty.

The system, on the surface, doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Consulting firms (a.k.a. labor brokers, a.k.a. body shops) recruit skilled tech workers, mostly engineers and computer programmers. The firms handle the paperwork required to get these workers H-1B visas, a category reserved for those with highly specialized knowledge. Then tech companies contract with the consulting firms to use the workers. This allows the tech companies to quickly build up their work forces as needed, without having to deal with all the immigration paperwork. As stated in the NBC Bay Area report on the investigation, it’s a “flexible labor regime…placing skilled people with needy firms.” And the process, if it works properly, could smooth a path for tech workers looking to move to the U.S.—if they sign on with a consulting firm, the firm finds them a job; they don’t have to interview with multiple companies.

But beneath the surface, the investigation found, many of these arrangements have problems. By looking at court records covering 600 H-1B visa abuse cases, the investigators found that contracts are often draconian, allowing the body shops to withhold wages and force workers to pay large fees if they quit. Some hold visas hostage to enforce these contracts, or threaten lawsuits.



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