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10. Silicon Valley Uses Immigrant Engineers to Keep Salaries

Sources: LABOR NOTES, September 2000, Title: “Immigrants Find High-Tech Servitude in Silicon Valley,” Author: David Bacon; WASHINGTON FREE PRESS, July/August 2000, Title: “Silicon Valley Sweatshops,” Author: David Bacon; Corporate Media Coverage: San Francisco Chronicle, September 29, 2000, p. A29

Community Evaluators: Fred Fletcher, Ervand Peterson
Student Researchers: Ambrosia Crumley, Jennifer Swift, Terrie Girdner, Naomi Igra

High-skilled immigrant workers in Silicon Valley are being exploited by employers. Existing immigration law sets a cap on the number the H1-B visas the industry can use to hire immigrant engineers, so this year Silicon Valley electronics giants have been pushing for more Hl-B workers. While H1-B status laborers boost corporate bottom lines, there is a devastating effect on the workers themselves.

AFL-CIO vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson accuses the industry of using the H1-B visa program to keep their workers in a position of dependence. She points out that these workers are often hired under individual contracts, which by U.S. law means they don’t have the right to organize. For the high-tech industry this protection against strikes and unions is a key attraction of the H1-B program, especially in the aftermath of the Boeing Corp. engineers who mounted one of the most successful strikes in recent history.

Like other contract labor programs for lower wage and factory laborers, the H1-B program gives employers the power not only to hire and fire workers, but to grant legal immigration status as well. If an employer does not like something a worker does—such as defending themselves by filing discrimination complaints—the employer has the power to deport the worker.

One contract worker from India, Kim Singh, says that an employer withheld 25 percent of his earnings, none of which was returned when his contract was up. Another employer had him working seven days a week with no overtime compensation.

High-tech companies claim that a domestic labor shortage justifies the use of immigrant contractors with H1-B visas. Labor advocates counter that the problem is not a labor shortage, but instead the industry’s unwillingness to pay the salaries that American high-tech workers demand. Moreover, use of immigrant labor protects high-tech companies from strikes and union demands. Civil rights groups add that if Silicon Valley companies were interested in increasing the domestic high-tech labor market, they could train American workers—an approach that could also increase minority representation in the high-tech sector. The industry’s resistance to such alternatives indicates that its reliance on immigrant workers is not about a domestic labor shortage but about a desire for dependent employees and higher profits.

Both the Republicans and Democrats want the industry’s substantial campaign contributions to continue. So while the two parties quarrel over the details, both support revamping of U.S. immigration law in order to supply more immigrant labor to U.S. industry. Yet if Silicon Valley would take the millions they are pouring into political contri-butions and raise salaries instead, they would find all the workers they need.

African-American and Latino engineers protest the increase in H1-B visas because they believe it will eliminate jobs for engineers of color in an industry where local minority representation is already very low.

The practice of recruiting highly skilled workers from developing countries, such as India and the Philippines, perpetuates the loss of skilled workers in those countries, a situation called “brain drain.” Such workers end up subsidizing U.S. industry instead of contributing to industry in the native countries that paid to educate them.

Last February the AFL-CIO proposed a reform that would benefit workers instead of making them more vulnerable. The proposal includes a general amnesty for undocumented families already here. The proposal would also bring an end to employer sanctions and allow workers the right to organize to protest unfair and exploitative treatment.

UPDATE BY DAVID BACON: “Immigrants Find High-Tech Servitude in Silicon Valley” exposed the impact of Silicon Valley’s H1-B contract labor program on both contract workers themselves, and on other workers in high-tech and other industries. The media generally accept uncritically the idea that a legitimate purpose of immigration law is to supply labor to U.S. industry, and therefore saw little wrong with contract labor proposals.

Other proposals to institute and expand contract labor programs in agriculture, meatpacking, and other industries were made this year. If adopted, they will have a disastrous impact on immigrant workers, treating them as cheap, disposable labor instead of giving them legal status and protecting their rights. Efforts to organize unions by immigrants and non-immigrants alike will be made much more difficult.

These consequences for workers were ignored by the generally supportive way the mainstream press covered Silicon Valley’s effort to pass a bill expanding the H1-B program. A few articles covered fraud in the program’s administration, but hardly any looked at the exploitation of the workers themselves, and none at the bill’s potential impact on labor and union organizing.

This year immigrant rights groups were joined by the AFL-CIO in an historic call for a general immigration amnesty and the repeal of employer sanctions (the law which makes it a crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job). That received some press coverage, but the media then ignored the way those proposals fell victim to calls for contract labor.

In early October, Silicon Valley’s proposal was adopted by a unanimous vote in the House, and only one dissent, Ernest Hollings, in the Senate. To ensure the right outcome, the vote was held late at night, after the Republican leadership had assured Democrats that no more significant votes would be taken.

Microsoft, Intel, and other high tech giants showed their gratitude by contributing hundreds of thousands of soft-money dollars, through the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, to the unsuccessful reelection campaign of Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI), who shepherded the bill to passage.

The H-1B+ strategy, which tried to tie limited immigration reforms to the proposal, failed. Republican Congressional leaders passed the contract labor proposal without amendments. In an election year in which both parties were courting the votes of the powerful and wealthy high-tech industry, no one wanted to vote against it, with or without pro-immigrant reforms.

In subsequent weeks, the administration and Democratic leaders tried to tack the proposal, called the Latino Immigrant Fairness Act, onto other legislation. Through the November election, that effort was resisted by Republicans, and Democrats negotiated further and further concessions. In the closing days of Congress, an agreement was reached on legislation which contained almost none of the original proposals.

Meanwhile, the danger of contract labor actually increased. Agribusiness negotiated an expansion of the current “guestworker” law, which permits growers to import farm workers. In return, many undocumented farm workers would have been allowed to apply for visas. Although anti-immigrant Congress members defeated that proposal, it will be reintroduced next year.

In Nebraska, scene of the nation’s largest workplace immigration raids two years ago (see “The INS Takes On Labor,” The Nation, September 1999), the governor proposed a contract labor program to supply workers to the meat-packing industry. And as unions and community organizations geared up to organize workers in nonunion plants, the INS resumed wholesale deportations.

A new Republican administration will have an even more favorable attitude toward business proposals for contract worker programs. Divisions among Democrats will make it difficult to defeat them. At the same time, the anti-immigrant Right will oppose any broad amnesty for undocumented workers or effort to lift employer sanctions and end INS workplace raids.

The AFL-CIO, churches, and community organizations, however, remain committed to those pro-immigrant
reforms. That promises a fight over these proposals in this year’s Congress.

For more information, contact the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network(510) 643-2355, the National Campaign for Dignity and Amnesty-(212) 4733936, the AFL-CIO—(202) 637-5000, or the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights—(510) 465-1984.

David Bacon: dbacon@igc.apc.org

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