October 12's issue of Businessweek includes an article entitled "America's High-Tech Sweatshops." America has a number of immigration problems that are fairly well-know; however, this one was new to me. Evidently I'm just not that deviant of a person.
The basic situation is that someone outside of the US, in, say, India, accepts a job with a US tech firm. That person from India will pay the tech firm various fees to secure their visa, which the tech firm then holds. This person is then farmed out to work as a consultant. The company hiring the consultant in all likelihood has no idea about this person's visa status. Many times this consultant doesn't end up getting the job for which they had originally applied. So a bunch of people pay a bunch of fees to come to the US and then don't end up with the jobs they thought they had, and often have to go find work on their own. This income is then channeled back through the tech firm, which takes additional fees, so that it looks like the immigrant is actually working for the company holding their visa. And finally, when some of these immigrants decide to press charges or otherwise seek out their rights, they find out that they're not even here legally.
I'm not sure if the bit about having the immigrant pay the visa fees is legal or not, and quite frankly I don't feel like researching a bunch of immigration laws and policies to find out, but it is definitely not legal to channel someone's income back through a company they don't work for, and then have that company take a cut of that pay as "processing fees" or any other kind of fee.
My company hires a number of tech consultants (as well as other temporary employees). It's a good way to manage costs. I've temped before, and it's really not a bad gig, if you know what you're getting yourself into. However, when you don't know that you're going to be a temp, that's a big problem. And the end companies (like mine) frequently don't know what's going on, even when the temp agency signs a form saying that all of their temps can legally work in the US. If we hire TechInc to supply our tech consultants, and they get their consultants from various sources, who may or may not be fabricating documentation, etc, how would we verify this?
Additionally, as these consultants are coming from other countries, they are in all likelihood unfamiliar with US labor laws. They may not know they have the right to assert their rights, let alone how to go about doing so. And if they're new here, they may not have a network of friends and family to help them sort though these problems.
After reading this article, I was half-tempted to ask our IT consultants how they got here and who was paying their salary. Then I realized that there was no way for me to show them that I was concerned about this situation without also appearing a bit psychotic. I certainly don't want to scare off the IT staff...I depend on them too much.
I'm not really sure how to remedy this situation. The US definitely needs these educated, intelligent tech employees, but we also need a better system of monitoring our visa holders. I'm not currently in a position in which I do any hiring, so I can't directly prevent this from happening, but I can bring this issue up in conversations and make people aware that this sort of thing happens. Hey, if you've read this blog, you're already listening.