H1B Workers are NOT indentured servants

Common misconceptions about the infamous H1 Visa.


The phrase “indentured servitude” has been coming up a lot on HN, in the context of H1 Visas. I’m sure this phrase started out being used for dramatic effect, but the increased prevalence of usage suggests a disconnect with reality. As someone who’s worked in the US on an H1 for a while, I figured I’d try to clarify a few things.

inden′tured serv′ant: A person who is bound to work for another for a specified period of time.

H1 workers have it better than you think

1. An H1 worker is not bound to work with any employer for any period of time.

2. If unhappy with the work conditions/compensation provided by their employer, an H1 worker can choose to change employers whenever they want. Yes, they have a smaller job pool to choose from, but in the tech industry (context of most HN discussions about H1s), there really isn’t a shortage of employers willing to file.

3. The common misconception of being under an obligation to work for X number of years for an employer comes from the fact that H1 workers from a handful of countries (India, China, Mexico etc.) who intend to get Green Cards need to go through a process that may take many, many years (upto 20+ in some cases). Changing employers in the middle of the process can mean setting back expected time to get a Green Card by 1-1.5 years at maximum, provided the new employer is a willing Green Card sponsor.

4. H1 workers who’re not citizens of these handful of sucks-to-be-born-here countries can get Green Cards within 1-2 years and enjoy unfettered job mobility.

5. Employers can’t hire H1 workers for peanuts. There are regulations in place to ensure that employers pay their H1 workers a minimum prevailing wage. The prevailing wage differs by region to account for varying standards of living and is actually a reasonable amount IMHO. On a personal note, In all 3 of my jobs held as an H1, I’ve never felt salary-discriminated in comparison to an American citizen.

Don’t get me wrong, being on an H1 sucks:

1. Being laid-off/fired can mean that you have to pack up and leave. There are ways to prevent this from happening, but there’s always a chance.

2. Smaller job pool to choose from.

3. Because of 1&2, an H1 worker is at a negotiating disadvantage with regards to their salary.

4. During a certain phase of the Green Card process, there is an incentive for the H1 worker to suck it up, wait it out and keep the current job even if they don’t want to. The duration of this suck-it-up period is definitely not more than 1-1.5 years. Scumbag employers aware of this can take advantage of their H1 employees in this situation.

5. Immigration law is a bitch. Knowing/understanding all the regulations/traps/loopholes can take a long time. Information asymmetry pushes H1s to live with unfavorable employment circumstances until they know better.

tl;dr: Working on an H1B can be a PITA but it’s definitely not comparable to indentured servitude.