Invasion of the bodyshoppers

A shortage of American engineers and programmers spells boom times for brokers who peddle skilled foreign workers at bargain prices. Is it exploitation, or just good business?

It is Saturday in Plano, a day when droves of well-heeled suburbanites gather at the mall or on the soccer field. As usual, Mali Subbiah is not among them. Instead, the Indian immigrant toils in a drab, crowded room in his suburban office suite.

A "cheesy little sign," as one employee calls it--a piece of paper on the front door--marks the headquarters of McDowell Tucker & Company, Inc., the current name of Subbiah's consulting firm. Inside, the office is so cramped that the reception room doubles as a supply closet. Visitors must wind their way through stacks of office supplies to get to a single worn, yellow couch.

Subbiah, a native of Madras in southern India, has labored here for the past seven years to build what is commonly referred to in the high-tech industry as a "body shop."

The 35-year-old former robotics engineer, relying on the temporary and controversial H-1B visa program, combs his homeland for qualified engineers and software programmers--the "bodies"--signs them to contracts with his company, then peddles their services to American companies ravenous for highly skilled workers. In return for acting as middleman, Subbiah takes a big chunk--sometimes as much as 40 percent--out of the workers' paychecks every week.

That fact has led to accusations that Subbiah and his bodyshopping ilk are exploiters who bind men and women from impoverished third-world countries to deals that resemble indentured servitude. Because of Subbiah's cut--and he, in turn, often subcontracts with yet another middleman--the foreigners typically end up making much less than their American counterparts.

None of this concerns Subbiah, who finds dozens of his countrymen more than willing to offer themselves up for "exploitation" in America. Indeed, he sees himself as offering a valuable service. "Imagine," Subbiah says, "if someone told you you could earn 10 times what you are now making." He is quick to add that his trade in human capital has made him a multimillionaire.

This afternoon, the wiry, energetic entrepreneur is making up for lost time. For almost five months, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has barred admission of any foreign workers on the H-1B visa program that allows Subbiah's engineers and programmers to live and work temporarily in the United States. The INS had implemented a moratorium on H-1B immigrants in May 1998 when body shoppers like Subbiah gobbled up so many foreign workers that the congressionally set annual quota of 65,000 H-1Bs had already been reached. Only on October 1 did the INS resume issuing the visas.

Within 10 days of the ban's being lifted, Subbiah had scored in the body trade. Wandering around his office was a female programmer, dressed in the traditional kurta and shalwar, whom Subbiah referred to only as Sita. She had flown in from India just the night before, and Subbiah's wife was showing her around the office. Subbiah says he will arrange and pay for Sita's stay in a Plano hotel while he finds her a "consulting assignment" with a corporation. To get that position, Subbiah may go directly to a company to offer the programmer's services, but more often he will work through another middleman, who will also take a cut of the worker's paycheck.

A handsome, fit man, Subbiah exudes an odd mixture of enthusiasm for his new country and boastful bravado. In seven years, his business has grown enormously. He has also developed a reputation for running a clean shop. Sure, he works just about every weekend, and yes, he has two children, but, he adds unapologetically, "My wife takes care of that."

He proudly relates how his 6-year-old daughter gets up every morning and says "God Bless America, not God Bless India." He, too, overflows with pride about his adopted country, and manages to wrap his own enterprise in patriotism. "I am getting the cream of the crop from India and dumping them on America," he says.

Any concern that he will drain the best and brightest from his desperately poor homeland? "No, there are plenty more there," Subbiah says.

Although he has about 40 people working for him in India--as well as 12 in the States--Subbiah says he couldn't live in his native country anymore because his body can't take the pollution. He won't send his money there, either. "To be honest with you, I have several million dollars, and not one cent of it is invested in India," he says.

America has been good to Subbiah. He has imported some 350 engineers and programmers from India since 1993--about 200 are under contract to him right now--and the home page for his company (www.sahana.com) claims that it generates more than $15 million in annual revenues. Subbiah started his business under the name Sahana International Inc. and changed to McDowell, Tucker & Co. when he merged with another consulting firm of that name. Yet another name change is in order, as Subbiah recently agreed to sell out--for somewhere in the range of $17 million--to Aztec Technology Partners, Inc., a publicly traded Boston-based concern.

Subbiah's good fortune would come as no surprise to high-tech industry insiders. Demand for engineers and programmers is enormous. A 1997 study by the Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade association, estimated that about 10 percent of U.S. technical jobs stand vacant because there's no one to fill them.

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