Techsploitation, Part One: Modern-day indentured servants: Job brokers steal wages, entrap Indian tech workers in US

Matt Smith, Jennifer Gollan and Adithya Sambamurthy, Techsploitation, Part One: Job brokers steal wages, entrap Indian tech workers in US. The Center for Investigative Reporting, 27 October 2014. “Labor brokers providing Indian high-tech workers to American companies are gaming a professional visa program, creating a shadow world that can turn a worker’s dream of self-betterment into a financial nightmare.” This story was published with The Guardian and NBC Bay Area.

Excerpts from story:

Labor brokers providing Indian high-tech workers to American companies have hijacked a professional visa program, creating an underground system of financial bondage by stealing wages and benefits, even suing workers who quit.

About 840,000 people from around the world work in the United States on temporary visas, intended to help companies seek uniquely talented employees for specific jobs. In the tech realm, labor brokers often sponsor the visas, then contract out the workers to technology companies or government agencies to build databases, test software and complete other technical projects.

For decades, critics have sounded alarms about immigrant tech workers being treated as indentured servants by the worst of these staffing firms, known as “body shops.” In a yearlong investigation, The Center for Investigative Reporting has documented why this exploitation persists – through humiliation, intimidation and legal threats. Judgments against Indian workers sued for quitting their U.S. jobs can exceed $50,000….

Through thousands of documents filed with government agencies and in courts across the U.S. and interviews with dozens of workers, CIR found the tools of intimidation included restrictive employment contracts – signed by workers unaware of their rights – as well as legal loopholes.

Even immigration experts have trouble sorting out how the brokers manage to game the system.

From 2000 through 2013, at least $29.7 million was illegally withheld from about 4,400 tech workers here on H-1B visas, U.S. Department of Labor documents show. And this barely hints at the problem because, in the hidden world of body shops, bad actors rarely are caught….

The Gist:

In America’s visa program for highly skilled workers, labor brokers shackle employees to their jobs with restrictive contracts, punitive lawsuits and an ecosystem of fear.

Federal law bars companies from penalizing H-1B visa holders for quitting their jobs. But a loophole allowing companies to sue workers who quit for “damages” can disguise illegal penalties.

The federal government is supposed to investigate complaints. But of nearly 200 H-1B labor violation investigations in the 2013 fiscal year, seven companies were cited for going after workers who quit.

Without the protection of strong federal enforcement, H-1B workers instead fend for themselves in state courts–often with disastrous results.

Another piece in this investigation:

Jennifer Gollan and Matt Smith, Case Study: Tata Consultancy Services. The Center for Investigative Reporting, 27 October 2014. “Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., part of an Indian conglomerate, is one of the top users of the H-1B visa program, with more than 16,000 petitions approved between the 2011 and 2013 fiscal years, federal records show. Former Tata workers say the company tried to collect fees from them after they quit. Many immigrant tech workers say they are bound to their jobs this way, despite a federal law banning companies from penalizing H-1B visa holders for quitting. But such bonding agreements may not be enforceable, even in Indian courts. “