Tech's biggest players have been clamoring for the federal government to reform their immigration policies, demanding the expansion of the H-1B visa program. But tech's current crop of immigrant workers often find themselves "trapped" by "labor trafficking" rings that are rarely held responsible for abuses.
According to a year-long investigation by The Guardian, NBC Bay Area, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, companies such as Cisco, Google, eBay, Verizon and Apple employ the use of immigrant "body shops." These body shops find young programmers and engineers in India, get them to sign "draconian" contracts, which legally bind them to their employer, send them to work in the United States and withhold portions of their paycheck for profit. And these body shops use the threat of hefty lawsuits to keep immigrants in line.
Contracting with labor brokers also benefits US employers. They can staff up swiftly for temporary jobs and slim down just as fast, with workers paid below-market rates. The brokers, meanwhile, deal with immigration regulations and paperwork and generally are on the hook for claims that H-1B worker protection laws were violated.
However, body shops are a nightmare for the immigrant workers. The Guardian reports that "at least $29.7 million" in wages were withheld from immigrants working for US tech firms on H-1B visas. However, this figure is reportedly understated because "bad actors rarely are caught."
These body shops also indenture their workers by forcing them to sign contracts that forbid immigrants from quitting jobs. When immigrant workers do quit their jobs, they are often sued for tens of thousands of dollars.
In at least three of these cases, [body shop] CompSys made workers headed to the US sign bonding agreements requiring them to pay hefty fees if they quit. They had to sign another document once they arrived, agreeing to pay $15,000 more if they quit before the end of their contracts.
"It is an artificial handcuff on workers," said Paul Weiss, a labor attorney in New York who represented workers in some of the CompSys cases. "To impose such a draconian requirement is unconscionable."
Immigrants also complain about being "benched" by their body shops. One worker who spoke to NBC said companies would dump new arrivals in guesthouses, packing workers in small Bay Area apartment and forbidding them to leave the property. These body shops often don't have work for new hires. Instead, they hire immigrants so they'll have workers for future contracts.
However, the worst offense is that H-1B workers are often held captive legally by these body shops. Wipro, a labor trafficking firm with 4,501 H-1B workers that prominently contracts with Apple, has been accused of withholding wages, benefits, and holding visas "hostage":
A [Wipro] representative asked him in one email to sign backdated agreements and return salary he'd already been paid. When Paul refused, he said Wipro withheld pay, benefits and documents he needed to maintain his immigration status – and threatened to hold his visa hostage.
"They wanted to take all my salary," Paul said. "I was forced and coerced."
Paul contacted Apple's corporate offices. He complained that Wipro was violating the company's supplier code of conduct and, he said, Apple officials agreed to look into it. Meanwhile, Wipro continued to withhold $15,000 of his pay and benefits, Paul said.
One Indian immigrant told NBC that the contracts "virtually makes these employees a slave." Another said tech companies profit off an "ecosystem of fear." But Silicon Valley's tech giants have legally isolated themselves from responsibility—and don't show any signs of stopping.