David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Workers Need Immigration Amnesty, Not Contract Labor
by David Bacon

SAN JOSE, CA (10/27/00) - 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 pushed for more H1-B workers. Existing immigration law set a cap on the number of H1-B visas the industry could use to hire immigrant engineers, which was due to expire.

Congress bent over backwards to give the industry what it wanted, expanding the limit to over 200,000 workers a year. Only South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings voted against the proposal in the Senate, and the voice vote in the House (called late at night, after the Republican leadership promised that no more votes would be taken) was unanimous.

Both Republicans and Democrats want the industry's substantial campaign contributions in an election year. But while contract labor boosts corporate bottom lines, it will have 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 makes 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 claimed the industry faced a crippling labor shortage, threatening U.S. economic growth. Employment figures don't show 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.

AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson asked 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 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." Nebraska's governor has joined in the call.

Meanwhile, 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.

This logic led not only to the passage of the H1-B proposal, but disarmed many potential opponents, from unions to civil rights groups. In April, Henry Cisneros, past secretary of housing and urban development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support H1-B expansion. In return, he suggested, Congress could be convinced to pass a package of long-sought reforms of immigration law. including proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, for fair treatment for late applicants for the last immigration amnesty, and others.

Cisneros' prediction was wrong. The Republican majority in Congress was ultimately able to pass H1-B without those amendments. And by focusing on a potential deal, no campaign was mounted against the growing call for contract labor by unions or civil rights groups.

Last February the AFL-CIO proposed a much further-reaching reform, one which would guarantee the ability of immigrant workers to exercise their rights, especially the right to organize. The federation proposed a general amnesty, to give undocumented families already here the right to apply for legal status, and an end to employer sanctions, to eliminate that section of the law making it a crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Hearings were held throughout the country in the spring and summer to popularize the proposals, culminating in a 20,000-person rally in Los Angeles.

No bill was subsequentely drafted and introduced into Congress embodying these reforms, however. Instead, the Cisneros deal occupied center stage. The administration pledged support to these much more limited goals, mislabeling them "amnesty," and at the Democratic Party convention, labor sought support for this package, rather than real amnesty and ending sanctions.

For presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence of a real amnesty bill in Congress was good news - he didn't have to open himself up to a Republican attack by supporting such a proposal, or lose the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.

Nevertheless, when Congress reconvenes next year, Chicago Representative Luis Gutierrez has pledged to introduce a broad amnesty bill embodying the AFL-CIO's demands. 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. The bill should also set up a legalization process, not only for current undocumented immigrants, but for those who will arrive in years to come.

In the era of the global economy, immigrants will continue to migrate to the United States, driven from their homes by war, poverty, and the corporate priorities of the globalized economy. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are over 80 million people in the world today living outside of the countries in which they were born.

Instead of turning these migrants 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' rights to organize and become politically-active members of stable communities, for immigrants and native-born alike.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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