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IMMIGRANTS SHOULDN'T BE MADE HIGH TECH SERVANTS

By David Bacon
SAN JOSE, CA  (7/27/00) - 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
industry."
        Countering these arguments, high tech lobbyists claim the industry
faces a crippling labor shortage, threatening U.S. 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, U.S.
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.  U.S. 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 U.S.  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 U.S. immigration law should be revamped in
order to supply immigrant labor to U.S. 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 U.S. desperate 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.

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david bacon - labornet email            david bacon
internet:       dbacon@igc.apc.org      1631 channing way
phone:          510.549.0291            berkeley, ca  94703
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