We rely on skilled foreign workers for their math, science, and creative abilities…”-Bill Gates

There is another category of products subject to severe labor abuse that is tantamount to slavery. Surprisingly this is found in an area that we do not associate with poverty or abusive practices… the product services industry. On the contrary, this industry is associated with white collar educated professionals, working in corporate offices. But there is a growing segment of this workforce  being exploited in much the same manner as those who perform physical labor. Most often these victims are immigrants here in the U.S. on work visas that tie them to their employers in much the same fashion as we have seen in cases of domestic servitude.

In 2009, Business Week ran a cover story titled America’s High-Tech Sweatshops that detailed how this abuse occurs. According to the authors, thousands of companies take advantage of the H-1B visa program to basically import foreign workers, illegally charge them exorbitant kickbacks, and then continue to exploit them once they have relocated. These fees, reportedly ranging up to $15,000, are illegal, but they establish a groundwork for debt bondage not unlike what is seen in the wider labor trafficking markets.

Large corporations distance themselves from this practice by simply outsourcing the recruitment of human resources and temporary workers to smaller staffing agencies known appropriately as “body shops”. This practice is most prevalent in the technical and financial services industries where these workers provide tech support and software programming expertise. It has become more widespread as the U.S. economy has shrunk and employers are impelled to cut costs.

Workers are frequently warehoused in over-crowded apartments. They are coerced to cooperate by the threat of deportation. Often the jobs promised do not even exist, and victims must find whatever low-paying work might be available. Money laundering is involved as these workers must turn over their wages to their “employer of record” who sponsored their visa. A substantial cut is illegally extracted. Another abuse is having an immigrant’s H-1B visa application indicate a fair wage in a rural location, but then putting that worker in a location with much higher prevailing wages and costs of living. The worker of course is only paid the lower wage, with the body shop pocketing the difference.

People who come to the U.S. on work visas include many engineers and computer scientists, often with advanced degrees, but they frequently do not know their rights as employees. Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for foreign workers, has set up a web site that spells out which visa fees an employer is supposed to pay, what to do if wages aren’t paid on time, and how to report problems.

Tips for Guest Workers on Avoiding Abuse

Related news:

Border Bill Aims at Indian Companies: Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said his staff had come up with an alternative that would not hurt American workers: raising the visa application fees paid by any companies with more than 50 people in which more than half the work force has H-1B or L visas that are intended for skilled foreign workers.

TechServe v USCIS: related H-1B litigation issues: Legal analysis

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