Grime and crime are now officially synonymous with the technology industry. Every time I think the reptiles in tech land can’t climb any lower down their classist, unjustifiably privileged, amoral ladder to hell’s deepest cellar, they show me one more rung below. Beyond investor swindling, wholesale privacy pirating, beneath the intertwined pond scum of greed, misogyny, and racism, now they’re basically into slavery.
NBC, The Guardian, and the Center for Investigative Reporting claim to have uncovered this heartbreaker after a year of digging. According to them, the immigrant information workers we think are stealing our jobs for personal profit are often indentured servants sweating under employment contracts that would raise the eyebrows of a Chinese triad captain. Before you curse the prepubescent startup villains in Silicon Valley, the report claims this nastiness isn’t perpetrated by those malignant growths, but by big-name tech companies, like Apple, Cisco, eBay, Google, and Verizon.
Dream brokers, soul sellers
As detailed by the investigation, these companies don’t want to deal with any legal complications or bolts of lightning cast down by a fair and just Almighty, so they don’t commit this sin themselves. Instead, they hire “brokers” who attract foreign workers, typically from India, with a quick road to a work visa, shelter, and a real U.S. job, then get them to sign nightmare employment contracts that pretty much turn them into serfs beholden to their corporate overlords. Once these poor saps are captured, the brokers supposedly start treating them like a baby treats a diaper.
These cruel contracts prohibit them from quitting an assignment or face massive financial penalties, including paying back wages they’ve already earned. They’re also reputed to withhold significant portions of their paychecks for “services rendered” while charging their billion-dollar corporate clients a pittance for what’s essentially slave labor. The Guardian reported that about $30 million have been withheld from H1-B workers, but believes this figure is far too low because many brokers avoid detection.
According to the report, brokers also stuff these workers into semi-kennels once they arrive in the land of the free. Usually these are small apartments with too many inhabitants who are sometimes forbidden from even leaving the premises. It’s almost exactly like what happens to teenage runaways when they get off the bus in the big city and bump into Pimptastic Eddie, wearing a crocodile smile and carrying a diamond-tipped walking cane.
To keep workers in line, brokers are said to sue for big bucks people who complain or attempt to get free of their contracts, retain both wages and benefits for themselves, and sometimes hold work visas hostage until they get what they want. One guy who spoke with investigators said his broker tried to get him to sign what would be blatantly illegal backdated contracts; when he said no, they held back his salary, canceled benefits, and kept papers he needed in order to stay in the country.
Straight to the (anonymous) source
Plagued with a simultaneously curious and cynical nature, I asked myself, “Self,” I asked. “Can this be true?” I called a source, whose name I will protect with every fiber of my frosty tumbler and who is himself a foreign worker employed in the not-so-sunny Pacific Northwest for a mainstream tech giant that shall also remain anonymous, so I don’t get sued into next year. (No, not the one you’re thinking of ... maybe.) He’s managed to achieve green card status over the years, but I asked him whether he’d encountered these kinds of satanic shenanigans when he first arrived.
He told me he thinks the story may be a little overblown. Apparently the visa process works on a lottery system in India that can take up to a year and can’t be influenced (at least legally) by a third party like a broker. Kids send their applications into what amounts to a black-box processing engine, then sit back and wait for an answer.
However, once the answer is positive, he admits that reptilian brokers could try oozing into applicants’ lives and ply their slime. In his day, they didn’t have much success because there were fewer successful applicants. Also, most used real immigration lawyers and made sure to work for employment agencies that had no hold on their documentation and were subject to audit from their larger customers to ensure immigration laws weren’t being shredded.
But in this bubble environment, he admits brokers could get away with much or all of what the investigation claims is happening, especially if they're providing relocation services and guaranteed jobs. Both are becoming rarer as companies cut costs or don’t have the ready cash, like startups where execs would rather use VC money for hot tub orgies than fairly paid workers. He agrees that many young Indian graduates are starry-eyed at the prospect of getting into the United States and could easily make a bad or careless choice and wind up practically shanghaied.
Apparently, unbridled greed and a fondness for debauchery don’t translate into empathy for the little people. I realize many tech execs are dumber than a horseshoe and nastier than a hungry sewer rat, but it seems that a subset have personalities cold enough to store meat. Aren’t dollar-filled swimming pools enough, guys? Do you really have to screw a talented kid out of a few thousand dollars and their liberty to save a few shekels and have a slightly easier time spinning dev teams up and down?
I hope my guy is right and the story is more sensation than fact. But given what we’ve seen and heard every day for the past few years, I don’t think so.