Diaspora: Outsourcing

She’s Bangalored and here’s her Bill of rights

Even as the US Senate has voted to increase the annual quota of H1-B visas for foreign workers, an Indian American who lost her job to outsourcing has drafted a Bill that seeks a better deal for employees

Here is an Indian who is against outsourcing. Well, not exactly desi. Sona Shah is a US citizen of Indian origin. She has filed a lawsuit against software and services firm, ADP Wilco, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Automatic Data Processing Inc after she was displaced by an H1-B foreign worker, whom she had trained. “This whole visa nonsense was the last thing on my mind,” Shah says. She sued ADP Wilco for discriminating against its employees based on their citizenship and immigration status.

Shah is practically fuming when she talks about what her company did to her. “I have a degree in physics from New York University and mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, but I still got replaced by a foreign worker,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter how skilled or qualified American workers are. US firms just want to dump them and get the job done at half the price by foreign workers.”

Being pro-H1-B visa does not mean being pro-Indian. The treatment of both foreign and US workers must improve. Under the current scenario being pro-H1-B just means being pro-corporate America

Shah and a colleague, Kai Barrett— who incidentally is her boyfriend—filed the lawsuit on behalf of US workers who are discriminated against in favour of foreigners and on behalf of foreign H1-B visa workers who are paid far below the prevailing wages enjoyed by Americans. While Shah is an American, Barrett is a British citizen who was transferred from Wilco’s London office to work in New York on an H1-B visa.

A year ago, Shah also urged Senator Bill Pascrell to take legislative action against firms that abuse H1-B visa programmes. The result is the “Defend the American Dream Act of 2004” which Shah has co-written. The Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Bill Pascrell (Democrat-New Jersey) and seeks an amendment to the H1-B and L1 visa programmes. 

The Bill, introduced by the Congressman on Shah’s 34th birthday, has grown out of two years of Shah’s work with Pascrell and her campaign against both outsourcing as well as the low wages paid to foreign workers who replace Americans like her.

Shah says the battle has been to establish a “class” of workers that are being underpaid, and those that are being displaced. This class action she noted, was different from traditional civil rights cases. “We are kind of like the first sexual harassment case fought in the country,” she says.

According to her, the “class” in the suit is made up of approximately 2,000 people. As there is no federal law in the US under which the cases of both the H-1B visa holders who felt discriminated against and American citizens who lost their jobs to outsourcing could be brought, Shah said she was fighting the case under the New York City Human Rights Law.

Because of how new the law is and because it has no precedent set yet, Shah said lawyers were hard to find. So far, her legal battle has led to defeating a motion to dismiss the case and defeating a summary judgment appeal. “It's a constant struggle to find the lawyers to make up the right kind of team for this kind of class action,” she says. 

At a press conference in Paterson, New Jersey, Pascrell announced federal legislation to reform what he called “the critically flawed H1-B and L1 visa programme.” H1-B visas are for “skilled workers” while L1 visas is for intra-company transferees. “American workers can't afford for the federal government to remain silent on real worker visa reform,” he said. 

Shah is still looking for work after every successive job she held following her Wilco experience disappeared or went to an H1-B visa holder.

The Bill “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide greater protections to domestic and foreign workers under the H1-B non-immigrant worker program,” was first introduced on November 17 last year. Shah had testified in the Congress in 2004 in the middle of heated debate. The Bill calls for changes in wage levels to foreign workers on H1B that would match prevailing local salaries.
The legal battle has taken its toll. “I had lost a lot of weight because I was so stressed. Everything we did was touched by the lawsuit. That is why Kai and I decided to put off getting married till we had wrapped up the case.

So does Shah’s anti-BPO campaign mean she is anti-Indian to boot? The Ahmedabad-born Shah, who came with her parents to the US when she was three, denies the charge hotly. “Being pro-H1-B visa does not mean being pro-Indian,” she says. “The treatment of both foreign and US workers must improve. Under the current scenario being pro-H1-B just means being pro-corporate America.”
It’s a refrain she keeps at. Shah adds: “My cousin from India came on an H1-B visa and he was treated horribly. I don’t know of any H1-B workers that are happy to come to the US with the understanding that they will be underpaid. Employers tend to mistreat their H1-B workers because they are a captive workforce. Visa restrictions turn them into indentured slaves.”

—Empire Bureau

January 2006

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