Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Transnational Subcontracting, Indian IT Workers, and the U.S. Visa System

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Transnational Subcontracting, Indian IT Workers, and the U.S. Visa System

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on visa-enabled immigrant work statuses that constitute the variegated continuum between citizenship and noncitizenship, documented and undocumented immigration, and entitlements and negotiated contractual employment in advanced capitalist economies. Specifically, I look at how temporary nonimmigrant visa categories in the United States are used by the corporate sector to create a flexible immigrant workforce with tenuous legal and work status in racial and gendered terms.

Thousands of Indian workers on visas, such as the H-IB, have been incorporated into the U.S. economy as information technology (IT) workers since the 1990s. Few among these professionals, however, work directly for the large U.S. companies where they report to work. As direct employees of either Indian or U.S. -owned subcontracting firms located in both countries, the majority work as temporary contract workers moving from one project to the next at client sites all over the United States. A complex interplay of Indian- and U.S.-owned labor subcontractors, their offshore subsidiaries, and immigration policies has synchronized the required access to immigrant IT workers to meet labor demands in a restructured economy increasingly reliant on technology for success in the global market. Even in a climate of severe anti-immigrant sentiments, the U.S. state has managed to enable the corporate sector to reach out to so-called overseas or foreign workers under the aegis of work visas.

In this essay I describe how the deployment of this labor force in the United States is strategically organized around a complex set of stateendorsed categories of visas, among them the H-IB, B-I, and L-I, and how the terms of these visas intersect with the neoliberal mandates of flexible employment. I focus on the terms of the visas and their impact on the lived experiences of these workers, as they negotiate a highly fragmented and decentralized employment regime in late capital as a documented but largely marginalized and segregated workforce. Insights offered here are based on qualitative research, including approximately forty semistructured interviews with Indian IT professionals in the United States and fieldwork conducted both in the United States and in India between 2001 and 2005. Interviews typically varied in duration between one to three hours and were tape-recorded, fully transcribed, and then qualitatively coded. The research also included analysis of government documents, such as transcripts of congressional hearings on U.S. work-visa policies and reports from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Data excerpts selected for this essay represent the forty interviews conducted for this study and reflect some of the central themes concerning visa-related experiences that nearly all the participants addressed during the course of the research.

The intricate and varied use of the three visa categories has to be understood in two interrelated contexts in late capital: one, the transnational contours of the IT industrial complex between the United States and India and, two, the system of flexible subcontracting. The logic and practice of flexible accumulation - subcontracting and outsourcing on a transnational scale, the hiring of temporary workers, fragmenting and decentralizing production - have restructured the meaning and content of employment in advanced capitalism (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000; Ong 1991). The management strategy of "just in time" (JIT) production and delivery used in manufacturing has spread across factories globally and the doctrine of "ready to hire and fire" has been transplanted to the entire range of U.S. companies in the ways in which they obtain IT services. In their efforts to keep employee rosters lean and to minimize the obligations associated with maintaining large in-house labor pools, U.S. companies proceeded to externalize their IT projects, sending them to consulting firms to execute and manage. …

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