I get Mary’s voicemail. Again. Her name isn’t actually Mary, but that’s beside the point. I’m standing outside her office building, Amazon’s Day One South superstructure, located in Seattle’s depressingly concrete South Lake Union. It’s now called the Invictus building, but when I worked there it was Day One South. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world as of this writing, supposedly has an office in Day One North (now known as the Cricket building) just across the courtyard. One time I saw him in the little plaza separating the two buildings, walking briskly to a silver car so fancy I couldn’t even tell what brand it was. I was tempted to ask him for twenty bucks, just to see his reaction. I didn’t.
Anyway. I’m standing outside my old office, Day One South, or Invictus, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be called, waiting for Her-Name-Isn’t-Actually-Mary. We agreed to meet for happy hour. It’s so far past the time we’d agreed to meet I know she’s ghosting me. I ring her one last time. Voicemail. Again. I start to trudge home. Over a lunch break back when we were coworkers, Mary disclosed to me that she hated her job. She was a regular, full-time employee; I was a contract worker. I asked why she didn’t start looking for something else—she was bright, had good experience. “I can’t afford to,” she admitted. I thought she simply meant the salary was too lucrative to give up, but it wasn’t until later I realized what she was referring to. Mary was from China, here in the United States on a H1-B visa.
Amazon, started in 1994, is home to over 500,000 employees worldwide. In its South Lake Union headquarters alone there are around 40,000 employees—a staggering jump from just 5,000 in 2010. There have been many stories about Amazon’s infamous work culture—how it breaks people, how it’s sink-or-swim, the rampant sexism (which was so overwhelming when I worked there, it almost became comical…almost), the incompetent managers who knew nothing about their teams but made staggering amounts of money. We’ve all read the exposés. What we often don’t hear about, however, is how Amazon ropes people—specifically, foreign workers—into their web, making it nearly impossible to leave.
I rang up an old friend—who still works at Amazon, and, unlike Mary, returns my calls—who had his own theories about how the company exploits workers from other countries. Let’s call him Charlie. He’s worked at Amazon for nearly ten years in various roles, never making less than six figures, and has no plans on leaving the company any time soon. Charlie works on a team with mostly foreign coworkers, the majority from India and China, but a few from Australia and Europe as well. “H-1B is their visa program,” he explained. “Theoretically, an employer must pay [foreign workers] the same as [American workers] and prove there isn’t an American candidate more qualified for the role under this visa. My guess is that the foreign worker is paid the same as an American, but it’s all about control—foreign workers can’t leave their jobs as easily as their American counterparts.”
“It’s all about control – foreign workers can’t leave their jobs as easily as their American counterparts.”
“There are two general theories about H-1B,” he continued, specifically referencing H-1B visas for roles that involve software coding. “One, that programming is really hard and there aren’t enough people in the world to do it well, let alone in the U.S. Two, that it’s some weird indentured servitude thing to suppress wages and unionization since people on visas will be terrified of doing anything that could lose their visa. I think it’s a bit of both.” To make matters more interesting, when regular, full-time employees sign on with the company, they’re awarded a hefty signing bonus. “When I signed on,” he disclosed, “I got 20k—half when I started, half a year later. This has doubled now, from what I hear.” If a H-1B holder wanted to leave Amazon for a competitor, or quit due to job dissatisfaction, their signing bonus must be paid back—a hefty sum for someone new to the country, especially if the money has already been spent.
The main criticism behind H-1B is the clear monetary preference for employers to hire foreign workers over American ones, but for me this isn’t about Americans losing out on opportunities. Rather, this is a call to examine the preference to hire foreign employees who just so happen to have extremely sticky contracts surrounding their employment, not to mention little incentive to speak up against mistreatment. Amazon is already notorious for pushing workers to the brink; purposefully hiring workers who will be less likely to complain seems perilously convenient.
According to myvisajobs.com, “Amazon Corporate Llc has filed 6395 labor condition applications for H1B visa and 3076 labor certifications for green card from fiscal year 2014 to 2016,” with the highest number of applicants hailing from India and China, followed by Canada, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, South Korea and Turkey. “When an employee renews or transfers his H1B visa or changes work location under some circumstances, he will also file a new LCA application,” states the website. As there are only 85,000 slots for applications a year, refiling for a new application when you’ve already received your visa is an enormous gamble. Staying in your current role is the only option for most, particularly when visas are awarded via a lottery system due to enormous demand.
I’m not surprised Mary didn’t get back to me. It’s risky to speak ill of the Amazon monolith, even under anonymity. Hell, I’m writing this piece anonymously. Who dares go against Amazon? Not me, certainly. And as they destroy more small businesses, as well as completely reshape retail and what we expect from online shopping companies, how can we protect workers who fall into their visa trap? Is it even possible? As much as I dislike Amazon, there’s a part of me that always wonders: Will I have to go back one day? Will it be my only option in a world where Amazon has destroyed so many industries, and I have no other options? So for now, I’m Anonymous. Sorry. I might need to trudge back to Day One South again one day.