In Silicon Valley, Indian programmers form association
to fight for their rights
J M Shenoy
Asserting that the information technology revolution would not have been possible but for high-level exploitation of computer programmers from India, Hong Kong and Russia (or any other foreign country), Muthu Muthuraj and Pradeep Chaphalkar have formed Immigrants Support Network, an organisation to boost the morale of programmers, help them network towards getting their green cards faster and finding better jobs.
But beating the green-card blues is far from easy.
Because of the long delay in getting the cards, employers save about $40,000 in wages and benefits for each programmer over a period of 12 months, opponents of the H1-B visa programme say. The visa system is mired in confusion and greed, some experts believe -- and employers do not want it changed.
The psychological damage to H1-B visa holders is terrible, Muthuraj says.
But several H1-B visa holders say, while speaking anonymously, that they knew the risk they were taking when they accepted the jobs. "Things can certainly be better," said one programmer. "We do deserve better recognition and respect -- and yet many of us are able to send about $10,000 each a year to our families in India."
Too many Indian computer programmers, some of whom were arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service last month in San Antonio because their employers allegedly made some technical errors while finding them employment, are facing a nagging worry even after the INS announced about two weeks ago that it will not deport them.
"Many Americans -- or for that matter Indians -- do not have any idea what we have to undergo," says one programmer. "Americans mention the $50,000 we make a year and argue that we are far better off than many Americans."
"But they won't face the fact that a white or black American in our position will be making $15,000-$20,000 more than our salary, say of about $50,000."
Many foreign-educated programmers do not even make $50,000 median salary in Silicon Valley. And several employers, including a handful of Indian companies, have paid less than what they had promised. According to Techweek magazine, which interviewed five Indian programmers -- who remained nameless because they feared reprisals from their employers -- a 1996 survey study by the department of labour found that 19 per cent of H1-B visa holders were paid less than the companies had promised. Between 1992 and 1998, the same department made many companies, including leading firms, pay $2.5 million in back wages and other penalties.
"Some of my friends consider themselves lucky if they make about $40,000," says another programmer who has been in America for about five years and is about to get his green card.
"But the real frustration is to wait for five to six years to get the green card," he continues. "Partly it is the fault of the INS which is using outdated computers -- and worse, it has no sympathy for the immigrants."
The employers are only too happy that the green card takes a long time. "They then have us working for them for five to six years and we see very few benefits, and the pay rise is very insignificant," he adds.
A hi-tech worker who used the name Rajiv told Techweek that the hi-tech industry is least interested in helping the workers get the green card faster.
As Congress is about to raise the quota of H1-B visas from the current 115,000 to 195,000 for each of the next three years, critics of the programme are attacking its credibility and usefulness to America in the long run.
Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California-Davis, doesn't believe that a shortage of hi-tech workers exists in America. He believes the hi-tech companies have "manufactured" the shortage by hiding data about Americans taking computer science classes and its high-pressure lobbying has made Congress look the other way when critics point out the shortcomings and deception involved in the programme.
Many young foreign workers are used to replace older American workers, Matloff argues, pointing out that many firms do not want to retain people who are 40 years or older. He is convinced that the older programmers can update their knowledge and programming skills if they are given reorientation classes. But the hi-tech companies are not interested, Matloff argues.
"This is an age-discrimination issue," he adds.
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