The H1B: Our Modern World’s Indentured Servitude

I’ve always thought, when it comes to the highly skilled, our immigration laws poorly serve the country. If someone has in demand skills, we should be doling green cards out to them like candy. Instead, what we have is a modern day equivalent of the indentured servant, known as the H1B Visa program.

For those of you not in the tech industry, H1B is basically where a company sponsors an immigrant to be in the country for a specific job. If that person loses that job, they are out of the country, essentially. They have to find another company willing to “sponsor” them if they want to stay, and within a fairly short amount of time, or face deportation.

This is essentially a license for the sponsoring company to mistreat employees, knowing the only other place they can turn is other companies willing to sponsor an H1B. It is a modern day indentured servitude, and we should be appalled as a country our immigration laws are allowing this. If someone has skills that could contribute to the economy, they should be a given a green card and thrown into the labor pool to compete along with the rest of us. If they choose to go back to their own country because they can’t cut it, that’s their business. But if they can succeed in America, we should welcome and embrace that.

So why does the H1B program persist? Because a lot of large corporations like crony capitalism. They like being able to bring skilled labor in from other countries, mistreat them, pay them poorly, and know they don’t have too may other options. Personally, I’d rather compete against these folks on a level playing ground. There are many brilliant H1B workers who deserve to find a permanent place in this country, and we’re doing them a horrible disservice by continuing this program.

13 thoughts on “The H1B: Our Modern World’s Indentured Servitude”

  1. This has always been my issue with the H1B, these poor guys are treated like slaves. I’m all for recruiting talent from around the world, but let them be portable in their employment options.

    1. If they were portable, they would likely be in a position to demand higher salaries. While the increased number of engineers might drive down wages, at least the immigrant who is free to move can demand $80,000 a year, not $40,000. And he won’t drive wages as much because he can demand a market wage.

      I am still a bit uncomfortable allowing large scale immigration when so many American citizens and permanent residents are unemployed or underemployed, but portability would be an improvement over the current system of indenture.

  2. The entire government sub-contracting world is a horrific nightmare.

    The government will pay a mega-contractor $200,000 for a position. $100,000 will go to a sub-contracting vendor. $25,000 will go to the H1B visa holding company. Finally, the Sr. Level Java developer will take home a whopping $50,000.

    It’s almost like one big scam to piddle away taxpayers money.

    I have another solution for the general illegal immigration conundrum. Don’t fine companies for employing illegal aliens. Rather, mandate that ALL illegals are to be eligible for minimum wage. And then fine companies for not paying illegal aliens a fair and minimum wage.


    1. From what I have read, relatively few illegals are paid below minimum wage. The real problem is that so many illegals being available drives down the wages of unskilled or semiskilled labor, making many of the Americans who work in these jobs dependent on government assistance of various sorts.

  3. Most of my professional career was before the old Soviet Union fell. I was appalled at how many Russian immigrant engineers I encountered in industry who were being grossly exploited. There were arguments made that ex-Soviets were of suspect competence, but even so, many were doing Senior Engineer jobs while being paid less than new hire students right out of college. If they were of suspect competence, they wouldn’t have been filling those positions.

  4. If they don’t like the system, they’re not obligated to stay here. It’s like applying for and getting a job at McD’s and then complaining that it only pays $8/hour.

    Oh and the ones who stay bring their nanny state voting habits with them. Maybe their low pay just offsets their ultimate social cost. How about we start importing workers from countries where folks don’t think everyone is entitled to endless “free” benefits?

  5. I was an H1B for six years and yes, it is indentured servitude. I was treated fairly well but I knew my options were limited. I was fortunate.

    You point out the catch, Sebastian. Once the employee is either off the H1B after six years (you must return to your country of origin for one year before you can start the H1B process again) or on a green card, the employer loses control of them. A lot of folks put up with the H1B process because if they do, they have a shot at a green card and the option to stay here permanently. Then again, the employer-sponsored green cards often comes with contractual strings like 2-3 years additional service to offset the cost.

    One big gripe is H1B lower salaries tend to drive down the wages of other folks in the same industry. Why should we pay you $80K when we’re paying them $50K?

    I’m grateful I’m no longer H1B. Having freedom of job mobility was a big deal without the employer Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. The years I put in as an H1B were well worth it in the end.

  6. It’s odd how EVERY Oracle DBA I remember working with in Chicago 10-15 years ago was from India on a H1B. And how people would whine about how hard it was to hire good DBAs.

    Yeah, at $40,000 a year. …

    1. We went though the same thing at a previous employer. They could not understand why the Oracle DBA being paid $53,000/yr would not stay for more than 90 days. Then they got some South Korean H1B slaves.

  7. “So why does the H1B program persist? Because a lot of large corporations like crony capitalism. They like being able to bring skilled labor in from other countries, mistreat them, pay them poorly, and know they don’t have too may other options.”

    And that is also exactly why we don’t have border enforcement or enforcement of laws about employment for low-skilled workers, too: crony capitalism. It’s the same thing going on in high tech and grape fields, and the result is also the same: workers who can’t complain & lower salaries for everybody.

  8. I was at a company where we hired H1B’s. They were required to post those guy’s Salaries. One of them made 90k a year the other made 100k a year. I don’t think they were being treated as slaves. On the contrary they made a great wage, and the company was working with them so when the H1B expired they were on track to get residency (via an L1A first). Maybe some companies mistreat them but in my experience if they are good (Which ours were) they are well paid and treated as well as the American employees.

    1. It depends on the company: as I commented in Clayton’s posting, in January 2001 just before things got really ugly at Lucent I was offered a salary of $80K and later I discovered from the required posting that my H-1B peer, very possibly more qualified for the particular job than I, was making $45K.

      Which is the exception to the rule? From what I’ve gathered, it was your peers and previous company. The fact that there are some good companies out there doesn’t mitigate … well, whatever it is that has been keeping our salaries flat all the while “talent shortage!” is being screamed from the rooftops. That’s the best, hardest evidence that something is very wrong.

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