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Feds: IT firm owes $2.4 million to H-1B workers

India-based Patni Computer Systems, which has U.S. headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., agrees to pay back wages to 607 computer professionals after a Department of Labor investigation.

An India-based company that counts itself among the largest recipients of controversial H-1B visas has agreed to pay $2.4 million in back wages to 607 allegedly underpaid computer professionals employed through that avenue.

The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday it had found that Patni Computer Systems Inc., which is headquartered in Mumbai but centers its North American operations in Cambridge, Mass., did not pay the required wages to those temporary foreign workers between January 2004 and December 2005. Patni specializes in global IT outsourcing services.

In this case, Patni was not fined or barred from participating in the H-1B program--as has been the case with some companies in the past--because federal investigators found no "willful violation" of the law, Labor Department spokesman John Chavez told CNET Monday.

Company representatives did not respond immediately to requests for comment from CNET, but a spokesman interviewed by the Associated Press blamed the wage discrepancies on an "accounting error" that has now been fixed.

Patni was also one of nine Indian companies recently singled out by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said they were troubled by reports that many of the top H-1B users last year were consulting firms that recruit foreign workers, only to outsource them to offshore companies.

In a letter last month, Grassley and Durbin asked Patni to describe how many of the 1,391 H-1Bs it received last year, according to U.S. immigration officials, were used for that purpose.

Grassley and Durbin are sponsoring a bill that would require employers to meet a number of new requirements before they could make H-1B hires. Those obligations would include certifying that they had made a "good faith" effort to hire an American before taking on an H-1B worker and guaranteeing that the foreigner was not displacing a prospective U.S. worker.

Conflicts over wage payments to visa holders are hardly new. Federal auditors reported last year that a few thousand employers that use H-1B visas had not committed to paying wages at the so-called prevailing rate before making their hires.

At the same time, American high-tech companies like Microsoft and Google continue to argue there's a crisis-level shortage in the visas, which allow foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in professional areas to work in the United States for up to 6 years. A U.S. Senate immigration bill that has died at least for now included a provision to elevate that annual quota.

Other members of Congress say they're worried about the world's share of jobs in science and technology fields increasingly migrating away from the United States. The House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology plans to explore suggestions for how the federal government should respond to that challenge at a hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.