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H-1B Workers Put in Long Hours to Reach the American Dream

March 5, 2019, 11:15 AM

Salil Choudhary came to the U.S. in 1999 on an H-1B visa, received a green card in 2004, and became a citizen in 2010. Things were going great until Choudhary, a freelance information technology consultant, entered a contract with Yochana IT Solutions Inc. in January 2018.

That was the “worst experience of my consulting career,” he told Bloomberg Law.

Yochana placed Choudhary with HCL America Inc. on a project being completed for Philadelphia-based Axalta Coating Systems. He expected to work a regular, 40-hour-per-week job, but soon found he was putting in long hours during the week and on the weekend, with no overtime pay.

The experience is shared within the IT consulting industry, which historically has employed large numbers of workers on H-1B skilled guestworker visas, multiple workers told Bloomberg Law. Many requested anonymity, citing fear of retribution. The workers and their advocates say the industry’s main players have been allowed to get away with pushing workers for longer hours with no extra pay.

IT consulting companies that were the subject of worker complaints, including HCL and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., say they adhere to all employment laws and provide open and anonymous channels for workers to report any wrongdoing.

Hard to Walk Away

U.S. citizens such as Choudhary can simply leave a job with unsavory working conditions. But for H-1B workers, the vast majority of whom are from India, walking away means being sent back to their home countries.

“In the past few months I have been contacted by over 50 individuals in regards to being intimidated and harassed to work long hours without overtime pay,” immigration consultant Jay Palmer told Bloomberg Law. “They are scared to complain in fear of being fired and blackballed for other jobs and eventually deported back to India,” he said.

And the relatively low wages H-1B workers earn in the U.S. are “a gold mine compared to what they make back home,” he said.

Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, is the second largest H-1B employer, with 10,656 initial and renewal petitions in fiscal year 2018, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

Choudhary’s former employer, HCL, comes in at No. 11 with 2,910 initial and renewal petitions.

Companies Deny Exploitation

HCL said in a statement that it “adheres to all applicable employment laws and is committed to safe and healthy work environment across the globe. We also have numerous channels through which employees can communicate concerns anonymously without fear of retribution.”

“In addition, we undertake routine evaluations of our work environment to ensure that it continues to be an inclusive and enjoyable workplace, with free-expression for all,” the company said.

Tata Consultancy Services denies that it’s exploiting its workers and instead chalks up the work hours to “isolated experiences” and the occasional high work volume that comes with deadlines and major projects.

“TCS is one of the leading IT Services and consulting firms in the U.S., offering industry-standard policies and competitive benefits, vacation policies, etc.,” the company said in a statement provided to Bloomberg Law. “We care deeply about the physical and emotional well-being of all our employees, and offer extensive training, community volunteering opportunities and employee assistance programs.”

TCS has “one of the industry’s highest employee retention rates, while we continue to be one of the top two recruiters of local IT Services talent in the US,” the company said.

A representative for NASSCOM, the trade association for Indian IT consulting companies, didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

Conditions Must Be Same as for U.S. Workers

The H-1B program was intended to provide short-term foreign labor to fill gaps in “specialty occupations,” i.e., those requiring bachelor’s degrees. Visa program rules require that the working conditions offered to H-1B applicants match those offered to U.S. workers.

That requirement was based on the idea that H-1B workers’ conditions would be improved to match U.S. labor standards, Sarasota, Fla., attorney Sara Blackwell told Bloomberg Law. Instead, it appears that employers are downgrading those standards across the board, she said.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the law about how employers have to treat their U.S. workers in terms of hours and wages,” other than “the basic labor standards laws and regulations,” Daniel Costa, director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg Law.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, however, jobs performed by the IT workers are considered exempt from the law’s requirement that they be paid extra compensation for working overtime.

The companies’ executives “are making bonuses on the backs of these people” and “nobody cares,” Blackwell said.

80-Hour Weeks

One H-1B worker at TCS logged more than 80 hours a week on a project for JP Morgan Chase during the spring and summer of 2016, including 12 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. It’s not until after new employees start their jobs that they find out they’re expected to work 12-hour days instead of eight, he said.

On several occasions, he heard co-workers cry after being asked to work on weekends.

At TCS, “there is no such thing as overtime,” another TCS employee said in an email to Bloomberg Law. Instead, there is only “ANYTIME, meaning have to work anytime day/night/weekends.”

Another former H-1B worker at TCS said he put in “almost 12 hours a day for most of the time.” Only eight or nine hours were actually worked in the office—but employees were expected to log into the online system once they went home, and again on the weekends, he told Bloomberg Law.

Workers earned $60,000 to $65,000 per year, based on a 40-hour workweek, he said. But “the concept of overtime didn’t exist,” and no extra pay was allocated for working up to twice that amount of time, he said.

The same worker said employees were provided paid sick and vacation leave on paper, but were never actually allowed to take it. Anyone who called out sick was still expected to log in and work from home, he said.

Choudhary says these conditions not only exploit H-1B workers but create an industry that drives out everyone else. “A normal American would never be able to work for them,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com