Deep inside America's booming information technology industry lies a dark secret: an underground system of financial bondage that treats immigrant workers like indentured servants. As The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed this week, labor brokers routinely game America's H-1B visa program to entrap Indian tech workers in an ecosystem of fear.
Our stories and graphic novel illustrate how the exploitation has thrived for years with little consequence for firms that skirt the law or the companies and government agencies that contract with them – all at the expense of workers seeking the American dream. Here's a breakdown of the main tactics these manipulative job brokers use:
Companies lure Indian workers to the U.S. with phantom jobs.
Tech hotbeds in India such as Hyderabad are rife with advertisements reinforcing the same message: A life-changing tech job awaits you in the United States. But many workers’ experiences fall far short of that promise.
Instead of launching a career with a major U.S. corporation, they sign on with a labor broker. Once in the U.S., they may find there’s no waiting job. Instead, they’re told to surf job boards. When they find something, often 30 percent or more of their pay goes to the broker.
Workers often are unpaid.
Many times, workers are “benched” by the labor brokers – meaning they’re left idle between jobs without pay. The very essence of the H-1B program makes this illegal, because employers can obtain a work visa for an employee only if a paid job already is waiting. Labor brokers, however, often prefer to have a cache of workers in reserve, ready to pounce if a job arises.
Paying for idle time can eat into profits, and CIR has talked to workers who say they were unpaid for months, living on money borrowed from friends, family and credit card companies.
Brokers demand cash for visas.
Federal law says an employer must pay the costs of obtaining an H-1B visa and offer the same pay and benefits that a U.S. worker would receive. Workers complain, however, that it’s common practice to make them pay thousands of dollars in under-the-table visa fees. They say company executives dismiss their requests for paid time off and other benefits.
Workers and federal documents also describe many cases in which employers have paid below-market wages.
Workers often feel pressure to “spice up,” or falsify, their résumés.
Labor brokers may offer H-1B workers a set salary while contracting out their services to the highest bidder. Brokers can inflate this profit margin by exaggerating workers’ skills and experience. Some workers report that one of their first tasks in the United States was to falsify their résumés.
One U.S. labor broker defended what he called his “spicing up” practice by saying his workers were as good as their phony résumés suggested. An India-based consultant added that this kind of exaggeration is such common knowledge in India that he made a business of independently auditing returning tech workers’ résumés for employers.
Bonding and penalties are heaped on workers who quit.
Some workers on H-1B visas are required to sign restrictive contracts that forbid them from quitting while they’re in the United States. Employees argue that these agreements indenture them to work under illegal terms and for below-market wages.
Federal law bars companies from penalizing H-1B visa holders for quitting their jobs. But a loophole allows companies to sue departing workers for actual financial damages. Some say not enough emphasis is placed on making the companies prove the damage, allowing them to use this loophole to disguise illegal penalties.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.