[Stop-traffic] News/US: High Tech's Indentured Servants

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: High Tech's Indentured Servants
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Nov 06 2000 - 10:51:25 EST


High Tech's Indentured Servants
As Silicon Valley prospers, foreign workers are trapped in a tricky waiting
game.
By Pham-Duy D. Nguyen
Red Herring, July 2000

In the 1600s, plantation owners in America routinely sent to England for
workers to plow their fields. As many as three-quarters of the immigrants
landing in the colonies were servants indentured to the sponsors who paid
their passage. Although the practice was officially outlawed in 1885,
indentured servitude has always thrived in the shady backwaters of the
American economy. Even today, Chinese workers are smuggled into the U.S.
illegally on container ships to sew khakis in sweatshops or to bus tables
in Chinatown.

A variation on this theme is rippling through Silicon Valley, where
thousands of foreign workers bearing three-year H-1B visas write computer
code, do biotech research, develop marketing plans -- and dream of the day
when they can take advantage of the boundless opportunity that has produced
riches for so many tech workers in the Valley.

At first glance, foreign high-tech workers seem to have little about which
to complain. They arrive in the United States on jets. As a group, they
earn more money than the average American and sometimes more money than
their countrymen at home will see in a lifetime. They never experience the
kind of physical imprisonment endured by some illegal immigrants, like the
Thai garment workers in Los Angeles who were kept behind barbed wire fences.

Nevertheless, many of tech's indentured servants are emotionally enslaved
and intellectually trapped. Their lives and careers are suspended by an
inefficient system that promises them America, keeps them waiting for
years, and then sends them back to their countries of origin because it has
made the same promise to too many people.

Take the Sundars, an Indian couple who work at Intel (Nasdaq: INTC). Their
green cards, which would grant them permanent residency, were promised
nearly a year ago. But their application is stalled -- one of 1,045,000
green card applications stuck in a backlog at the Immigration and
Naturalization Service. Meanwhile, Mr. Sundar's visa is due to expire in
three months. He and his wife want to have a baby, but Mr. Sundar says they
should wait because he might not be in the United States for long. Given
the uncertainty, they're reluctant to make even the simplest plans. "I
don't buy rose bushes because I don't know if I'll be here to see them
bloom in three months," says Mrs. Sundar.

The problem for foreign workers is not the temporary H-1B visa itself,
which is granted for three years and is renewable for only three more.
Workers may switch jobs and companies at will while they're on the visa, as
long as their prospective employer will sponsor it. (A transfer usually
takes up to four months.) The problems begin when a worker applies for a
green card, as more than half of H-1B holders eventually do.

Under federal law, green card applicants must stay in the same job at the
same company throughout the application process. Workers who switch jobs
risk having to start their application over; in effect being sent to the
back of the line, like impatient children who refuse to wait their turn.
The average wait for a green card is 33 months, according to the INS. But
for H-1B holders the wait can last even longer. About 40 percent of green
card applicants are H-1B workers, but fewer than 20 percent of green cards
granted each year are allotted to H-1Bs. And if a worker's H-1B expires
before their green card comes through, they must leave the United States
for at least a year before returning and trying again.

The story of one 29-year-old software engineer illustrates the bureaucratic
trap. He came to the U.S. from Suryapet, in southern India. In 1997, a
computer consulting company in Chicago sponsored his H-1B visa and placed
him in Wisconsin. During his third year in the United States, he looked for
a job that would lead to a green card. After reviewing offers from four
companies, he settled on Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), in Redwood Shores,
California. He reasoned that an established corporation would not, like
some startups, go kaput while his green card application was pending.

But soon after arriving in Silicon Valley, the young engineer found that
his salary, "the going rate for programmers," did not go far. He declined
to say how much he earned, but at the time, the average programmer's salary
was $60,000 to $80,000 a year, or about $5,000 to $6,700 a month. After
taxes, he paid $1,500 a month to rent the one-bedroom apartment that he
shared with his wife in Foster City, near Oracle's headquarters. He spent
$600 a month for his Honda Accord and $200 for car insurance. By the end of
each month, he could barely save $200 to send to his aging parents in India.

All this took place in a climate of staggering economic growth -- growth
fueled in part by the labor of skilled foreign workers. The engineer
received offers from startups with stock options and rocketing wages. He
saw American colleagues jump to new jobs and grow rich. But he had to say no.

Of course, not many Americans would scoff at the decision to stay in a
secure, well-paying job. But in Silicon Valley -- where it's not uncommon
for employees to stay at jobs for only a year, the time it takes to be
vested in one-quarter of a startup's stock -- three years can seem like a
lifetime of missed opportunities.

According to the INS, some 420,000 people living in the United States hold
H-1Bs. That number is expected to grow to 710,000 by 2002. The visa is
granted to professionals -- notably computer programmers, scientists, and
academics -- whose skills are desperately needed in this country. According
to the Information Technology Association of America, U.S. companies
reported in April that they want to hire 1.6 million IT workers in the next
12 months. At best, only half of those jobs will be filled, due to a lack
of qualified candidates.

Unemployment for high-tech personnel in Silicon Valley was 2.1 percent in
March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Attracting workers from
abroad seems to be the only way to begin to meet the demand. "It's not our
first choice to hire anyone with an H-1B. But we need people immediately,"
says Maggie Fong, chief financial officer of Uniscape, a Redwood Shores,
California-based applications service provider that enables companies to do
business online in 42 languages.

Some companies, like Intel, hire foreign workers with the goal of keeping
them permanently. In 1999, the company hired about 300 workers on H-1B
visas. It is company policy to hire people already in the United States on
student visas and then convert those into H-1Bs. Intel encourages those
employees to apply for permanent residency. "The notion that these people
are cheap and temporary is crazy," says Tracy Koon, Intel's director of
corporate affairs. "Mostly they come to us from graduate programs at the
best American universities. We intend to keep them long-term."

Most companies, however, have tacitly accepted an employee merry-go-round.
When one group's six years are up, they go home and a new batch is hired to
replace them. Silicon Valley corporations have long pressured politicians
to increase the H-1B quotas; currently 115,000 are granted per year.
Congress is considering three bills that would increase quotas or lift them
altogether. But none of the proposed legislation addresses the plight of
workers who are already here.

In early May, a group of high-tech heavy hitters, including Steve Wozniak
and Esther Dyson; Linus Torvalds, a Finnish citizen awaiting his green
card; and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla wrote to Congress, saying that
all the bills would, if passed, make the green-card backlog worse. The
letter urged Congress to approve conditional green cards for foreign
workers instead of simply granting more temporary visas.

It is hardly surprising that so many workers who come to the United States
want to stay. That is, after all, the story of America. But some
legislators say that workers on H-1Bs must understand that coming here to
work does not necessarily mean they can live here forever. "They want to
marry their career to their immigration goals, and the INS doesn't work
that way," says Casey Beyer, chief of staff to Congressman Tom Campbell (R:
California), whose district includes Silicon Valley and who is cosponsoring
a bill to lift the H-1B application cap.

But how do you tell that to a worker who came here and found a kind of
freedom unimaginable in her homeland?

That's the story of a Brazilian woman living in San Jose. In 1995, she came
to the United States to join her husband, who was studying at San Jose
State University. Since then, she found a job marketing software, divorced
her husband, and came out as a lesbian. "I blend in very well here as an
individual and that's what I treasure," she said. "I don't want to go back
to a society that's not accepting of gays."

She works up to 60 hours a week for $38,000 a year plus a few stock
options. Another company courted her, promising $50,000 a year and more
stock options. She was just starting her green card application, and losing
her place in line was no big deal. She accepted the offer, only to have it
rescinded when the company realized it would take four months to transfer
her H-1B visa.

So she stayed at her original job. "I don't feel like I can relax for any
reason," she says. "I do a good job and I get paid for it, but I can get
replaced. It's very stressful."

The situation for foreign workers is bound to grow worse. Historically,
more than 50 percent of H-1B workers have applied for permanent residency.
But as the backlog grows larger, only 15 percent can expect to receive a
green card. And the INS still accepts green card applications despite the
backlog.

"It's difficult to cope with the large amount of work, but basically, we
have to," says INS spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt. "Under federal law and INS
regulations, anyone who qualifies can apply, so we have to accept their
applications."

Of course, not all H-1B workers want to remain in the United States
permanently. Recently, at an Indian lunch buffet in downtown San Mateo,
California, six newly arrived Indian computer programmers sneered at the
idea that foreign workers like them could be viewed as victims or
indentured servants. The average age at the table was 26; only one was a
husband and father.

They all graduated from a technology college, worked two years in India,
and then answered an ad in a newspaper for computer consultants. At the
first interview, they were given a skills test. Once they passed, they had
two telephone interviews from the United States -- first with an Indian,
then with an American to gauge their English. But the phone connection was
so poor, they say, it didn't matter if their English was awful, because
most of the conversation was unintelligible. But they could write code, so
they were sent airplane tickets.

Mahesh Pasupuleti, 25, is the only one of the six who has been offered a
permanent job at the B2B print startup where they all work as contractors.
When he arrived in August 1999, the contracting firm agreed to pay him a
$50,000 annual salary. Six months later, Mr. Pasupuleti was given a $10,000
raise. The startup recently hired him at $85,000 -- plus stock options.

But Mr. Pasupuleti doesn't harbor fantasies of spending the rest of his
life in the United States. He plans to stay for the six-year term of his
H-1B visa and then return to India. He regards his time in the United
States as an extended tour of a foreign land -- and a chance to claim his
own share of the Silicon Valley gold rush. Until U.S. immigration laws
change drastically, that's about all a foreign worker can truly expect.
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at
<<morhant@igc.org>>.

Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health
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