by Mike Elk
In 2005, Suraj Kamath began working for Bosch Engineering in India as an automotive engineer. In March of 2009, Bosch moved him to its test facility in Santa Barbara, CA. under an L-1 visa, which allows American companies to transfer employees based in foreign countries to the United States as “guest workers.” And in December 2012, Kamath says he received a letter from Bosch informing him that he needed to pay the company $45,102 in federal and state tax refunds that he had received over the previous three years.
When Kamath refused to hand over his refunds, to which he was legally entitled, he was met with another unwelcome surprise. According to a complaint he filed in federal court on Wednesday, Bosch threatened to send him back to India if he didn’t pay the thousands of dollars that it claimed he owed.
“I worked diligently for Bosch for years,” Kamath continued in his statement. “When I objected to Bosch’s demand to pay back all tax refunds I had received, Bosch threatened to fire me, send me back to India and make my life miserable. The way Bosch treats its employees is wrong and that’s why I am standing up to Bosch for myself and my fellow colleagues at Bosch.”
Kamath says that after he told Bosch he had no intention of returning the money, he received an email from management asking him to “return to India immediately. Any delay will be considered as insubordination.” Though Bosch did not fire Kamath outright, it did force him to go back to Bangalador, India in May 2013, a full 10 months before his visa was set to expire. Furthermore, Kamath never received the “performance pay” he was typically given as a yearly bonus for good work; instead, he says, Bosch told him it was deliberately withholding the bonus in order to compensate for Kamath’s refunds.
And Kamath wasn’t alone. According to his complaint, Bosch’s demands affected as many as 160 highly skilled Indian-born employees working in the United States. Kamath argues that Bosch engaged in “coercion” by forcing its L-1 employees to use a Santa Barbara-based tax company, GTS Income, to prepare their tax returns. GTS Income allegedly shared the employees’ tax information with management without seeking consent from workers; the company then used this information, he says, to demand refunds from many of its foreign-born employees. Kamath also claims that after making the threats, Bosch began to automatically deduct amounts from other Indian engineers’ paychecks on a regular basis to balance out their outstanding refunds.
The threat added insult to injury, Kamath says. Because L-1 visas only require employers to pay workers comparable to what they were making in their home country, Kamath alleges that Indian Bosch employees’ monthly wages of $600 to $2,100 per month, even with the addition of a standard living allowance and reimbursement for transportation costs, were still far lower than salaries typically paid to highly skilled workers in the United States. Despite this injustice, according to Kamath, Bosch still felt entitled to ask for even more of the employees’ money.
Bosch did not respond for comment for this story. However, activists who have seen these types of guest worker abuses in the past say this kind of behavior from employers is nothing new.
“This case of high-tech bonded labor is only the newest evidence that the U.S. guest worker program is deeply flawed. Employers too often treat guest workers—whether they’re engineers or housecleaners—as the ultimate exploitable workforce, and threaten them with firing and deportation to hide their abuse,” says Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “This case shows yet again why all guest worker programs … need strong whistleblower protections and the right of guest workers to change employers without losing legal status.”
Advocates say that had the ideal federal regulations been in place, Kamath and his co-workers would not have had to bring the case to court at all.
“[The guest worker compliance system] relies almost entirely on whistleblowers and, in this case, a civil lawsuit where the plaintiffs are going it alone without the government. We should have in place a compliance and oversight system that ensures employers can never engage in the behavior that Bosch is alleged to have,” says Ron Hira, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Though the government has plenty of measures in place to oversee corporate finances, Hira points out, there’s almost nothing being done to prevent employers’ questionable treatment of workers. “Regular audits by the government with stiff penalties for non-compliance would do the trick,” he continues. “Certainly investors don’t simply rely on whistleblowers and self-compliance when they read the financial statements from publicly traded companies— we have an SEC, an auditing industry, and very stiff penalties for non-compliance. Why should workers, foreign or American, be treated as less important than shareholders?”
As for Bosch’s Indian workers, Kamath and his attorney, Daniel Hutchinson, say they are going to keep fighting for the employees illegally denied their tax refunds.
“The Indian citizens who Bosch brought to the United States have contributed to the U.S. economy and helped Bosch grow and prosper in America,” stated Daniel Hutchinson. “All Bosch employees should receive their full wages, and that includes the tax refunds they are entitled to. These employees deserve to be treated fairly, and not have their livelihoods threatened for insisting that Bosch comply with the law.”
Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times, where this post originally appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.