By Louis Chan
WHEN YOU HEAR the words body shop, you likely think of workers in overalls restoring your car to its original physical condition.
For thousands of mostly Indian workers, body shops may be the equivalent of the modern day sweatshop. They are employers who may be taking advantage of desperate immigrants looking for a way to stay in the United States.
An article by Nikhil Swaminathan in Mother Jones details how many body shops exploit these workers and how a little known federal program may be the enabler, along with universities raking in big bucks by attracting foreign students on the hope the program can lead to a job in the United States.
A federal guest worker program called OPT or Optional Practical Training is attracting literally tens of thousands of Indian students to the United States. At the University of Central Missouri, the Indian international student population exploded from 152 in 2012 to 2500 in 2015. That’s 17 percent of the school’s student body.
According to Mother Jone’s, OPT allows foreign students who earn degrees to work in their field for a year after graduation. You can stay up to three years if you majored in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. That’s as long as the much harder to get H1B visa. There are now 300,000 OPTs in the US.
“One student I spoke to, who appears in my Mother Jones piece, said that people back in India think of someone who lives in America as “a god,” said reporter Swaminathan to AsAmNews. “Also, for some Indian parents, I think there’s a sense that sending their kids to the U.S. is a sort of retirement plan for them. If the kids come here and earn in dollars, they can send enough money home for the parents to live comfortably into old age. Or they can even send for them to come live in the States with them once they’re set up. I also heard that men who work in the U.S. get higher dowries when they look to marry.”
The OPT program may be working for students who go to better known schools with good reputations, but those at lesser known schools often find themselves struggling with little prospect of getting jobs at top tech firms such as Google, Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Amazon. Once shut out of that job market, these students find themselves targets of body shops.
One student talked about his experience on You Tube.
Body shops can pay $50,000, slightly higher than an internship at a top tech firm, according to Swaminathan.
“As I detail in the story, going the body-shop route often means lying on your resume, having other people take technical interviews for you, signing restrictive employment contracts, and basically involving yourself in a host of unethical practices,” said Swaminathan. “It’s a real-life catch-22 for prospective immigrants desperate to stay in America.”
Several body shops have been coached to lie to the government about their work to obtain H1B visas. Some companies have also been accused of failing to pay their workers. There are no regulations that require universities to vet the employers they allow to recruit on their campuses.
“These institutions that are just spewing out these degrees aren’t making any attempt to give them a career path,” said Prathiba Kalyan, a recruiter who spoke to Mother Jones.
Students for the most part are left feeling vulnerable and to fend for themselves.
“Students who get involved with body shops are scared — both because they think they have to do whatever their employer says to keep their immigration status (not to mention make money) and because, for those who join body shops, they eventually figure out they’re complicit in a sketchy situation,” said Swaminathan.
“Until the government can figure out how to incentivize these kids to come forward — and that might mean offering amnesty to OPT students who have participated in unethical behavior — this problem could conceivably continue.”