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Law Shouldn't Allow High-Tech Industry To Indenture Immigrants

Published on Friday, September 29, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle

Law Shouldn't Allow High-Tech Industry To Indenture Immigrants

by David Bacon and Judy Goff

BEFORE CONGRESS ADJOURNS this year, it may pass a bill that would have a devastating impact on workers. A vote is expected next week. The proposal would dramatically expand a current program that allows big Silicon Valley electronics companies to recruit employees outside of the United States and obtain H-1B immigration visas for them.

Current law limits the number of the H1-B visas this year to 115,000, and next year to 105,000. The companies want to increase that limit to 300,000. One proposal would remove the cap on visas entirely.

In June, the AFL-CIO held a hearing in Silicon Valley about proposals for immigration reform, at which one H1-B contract worker, Kim Singh, described his experiences. When he left India for Silicon Valley, Singh said, he thought he would find a good job. 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 United States as a software engineer. One company, he says, withheld from each of its immigrant engineers 25 percent of their pay. ``After each of us left, none of us received the money,'' Singh alleges.

At a second company, immigrant engineers worked seven days a week, with no overtime compensation. A third company rented a San Jose apartment for four H1-B engineers, charging each $1,450 a month in rent.

One might think workers would protest such conditions, but when the company holds their visas, such protest becomes risky. If H1-B workers are fired for objecting to illegal conditions, for organizing a union to change them, or simply because their employer no longer has work for them, they not only lose their job, but their immigration status as well. According to Singh, one 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.''

AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson charges that ``because these workers are often hired under individual contracts, U.S. labor law says they don't even have the right to organize.''

Meanwhile, African American and Latino engineers, who have made a protracted effort to break down discriminatory barriers in high-tech hiring, also protest the program's expansion. 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 contributes to brain drain. ``These programs are selling our human potential,'' says Anuradha Mittal, Indian-born co-director of Oakland's Food First, a food policy organization. ``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 debilitating 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.

Industry also claims that U.S. universities don't turn out enough qualified graduates. But downward pressure on salaries discourages young people from becoming engineers. And, ironically, U.S. universities train many students from abroad who then become H1-B workers.

Silicon Valley is not the only industry that wants to recruit immigrant workers under contract. Congress is now debating a similar bill for farm workers, which would take a big step toward the old, discredited bracero program of the 1940s and '50s. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were only able to begin organizing the United Farm Workers Union when workers became free of the bracero contract labor system.

The last thing farm laborers, or any other group of workers, need today is to reinstitute and expand this discredited program. But as it stands, other industries are also lining up for contract workers.

While Congress quarrels over the details of these bills, many legislators accept the false logic behind the proposals -- that U.S. immigration law should be revamped in order to supply contract labor to U.S. industry. Some seek to soften the proposals by tying them to other reforms, including proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and bids for fair treatment of late applicants for the last immigration amnesty.

This is a bad deal. The United States desperately needs immigration reform, but more contract labor will only increase the number of workers unable to organize and exercise their rights. It will drive down wages for immigrants and native-born alike.

Instead, the AFL-CIO proposed last February a much farther-reaching reform -- a general amnesty to give undocumented families the right to come out of the shadows. It proposed ending employer sanctions, so that all workers can exercise their right to organize and protest unfair treatment. Legal immigration and family reunification should be made 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.

David Bacon is a member of the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network. Judy Goff is executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. --------------------------------------------------------------- 

david bacon

1631 channing way

berkeley, ca 94703

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