Bosch Engineering to Guest Workers: Hand Over Tax Refunds or Go Back to India

Mike Elk

'Though the government has plenty of measures in place to oversee corporate finances, Hira points out, there’s almost nothing being done to prevent employers’ questionable treatment of workers.'

In 2005, Suraj Kamath began work­ing for Bosch Engi­neer­ing in India as an auto­mo­tive engi­neer. In March of 2009, Bosch moved him to its test facil­i­ty in San­ta Bar­bara, Calif. under an L‑1 visa, which allows Amer­i­can com­pa­nies to trans­fer employ­ees based in for­eign coun­tries to the Unit­ed States as guest work­ers.” And in Decem­ber 2012, Kamath says he received a let­ter from Bosch inform­ing him that he need­ed to pay the com­pa­ny $45,102 in fed­er­al and state tax refunds that he had received over the pre­vi­ous three years.

When Kamath refused to hand over his refunds, to which he was legal­ly enti­tled, he was met with anoth­er unwel­come sur­prise. Accord­ing to a com­plaint he filed in fed­er­al court on Wednes­day, Bosch threat­ened to send him back to India if he didn’t pay the thou­sands of dol­lars that it claimed he owed.

I worked dili­gent­ly for Bosch for years,” Kamath con­tin­ued in his state­ment. When I object­ed to Bosch’s demand to pay back all tax refunds I had received, Bosch threat­ened to fire me, send me back to India and make my life mis­er­able. The way Bosch treats its employ­ees is wrong and that’s why I am stand­ing up to Bosch for myself and my fel­low col­leagues at Bosch.”

Kamath says that after he told Bosch he had no inten­tion of return­ing the mon­ey, he received an email from man­age­ment ask­ing him to return to India imme­di­ate­ly. Any delay will be con­sid­ered as insub­or­di­na­tion.” Though Bosch did not fire Kamath out­right, it did force him to go back to Ban­gal­ador, India in May 2013, a full 10 months before his visa was set to expire. Fur­ther­more, Kamath nev­er received the per­for­mance pay” he was typ­i­cal­ly giv­en as a year­ly bonus for good work; instead, he says, Bosch told him it was delib­er­ate­ly with­hold­ing the bonus in order to com­pen­sate for Kamath­’s refunds.

And Kamath was­n’t alone. Accord­ing to his com­plaint, Bosch’s demands affect­ed as many as 160 high­ly skilled Indi­an-born employ­ees work­ing in the Unit­ed States. Kamath argues that Bosch engaged in coer­cion” by forc­ing its L‑1 employ­ees to use a San­ta Bar­bara-based tax com­pa­ny, GTS Income, to pre­pare their tax returns. GTS Income alleged­ly shared the employ­ees’ tax infor­ma­tion with man­age­ment with­out seek­ing con­sent from work­ers; the com­pa­ny then used this infor­ma­tion, he says, to demand refunds from many of its for­eign-born employ­ees. Kamath also claims that after mak­ing the threats, Bosch began to auto­mat­i­cal­ly deduct amounts from oth­er Indi­an engi­neers’ pay­checks on a reg­u­lar basis to bal­ance out their out­stand­ing refunds.

The threat added insult to injury, Kamath says. Because L‑1 visas only require employ­ers to pay work­ers com­pa­ra­ble to what they were mak­ing in their home coun­try, Kamath alleges that Indi­an Bosch employ­ees’ month­ly wages of $600 to $2,100 per month, even with the addi­tion of a stan­dard liv­ing allowance and reim­burse­ment for trans­porta­tion costs, were still far low­er than salaries typ­i­cal­ly paid to high­ly skilled work­ers in the Unit­ed States. Despite this injus­tice, accord­ing to Kamath, Bosch still felt enti­tled to ask for even more of the employ­ees’ money.

Activists say this kind of behav­ior from employ­ers is noth­ing new. 

This case of high-tech bond­ed labor is only the newest evi­dence that the U.S. guest work­er pro­gram is deeply flawed. Employ­ers too often treat guest work­ers — whether they’re engi­neers or house­clean­ers — as the ulti­mate exploitable work­force, and threat­en them with fir­ing and depor­ta­tion to hide their abuse,” says Saket Soni, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Nation­al Guest­work­er Alliance. This case shows yet again why all guest work­er pro­grams … need strong whistle­blow­er pro­tec­tions and the right of guest work­ers to change employ­ers with­out los­ing legal status.” 

Advo­cates say that had the ide­al fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions been in place, Kamath and his co-work­ers would not have had to bring the case to court at all.

“[The guest work­er com­pli­ance sys­tem] relies almost entire­ly on whistle­blow­ers and, in this case, a civ­il law­suit where the plain­tiffs are going it alone with­out the gov­ern­ment. We should have in place a com­pli­ance and over­sight sys­tem that ensures employ­ers can nev­er engage in the behav­ior that Bosch is alleged to have,” says Ron Hira, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy at the Rochester Insti­tute of Technology.

Though the gov­ern­ment has plen­ty of mea­sures in place to over­see cor­po­rate finances, Hira points out, there’s almost noth­ing being done to pre­vent employ­ers’ ques­tion­able treat­ment of work­ers. Reg­u­lar audits by the gov­ern­ment with stiff penal­ties for non-com­pli­ance would do the trick,” he con­tin­ues. Cer­tain­ly investors don’t sim­ply rely on whistle­blow­ers and self-com­pli­ance when they read the finan­cial state­ments from pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­nies — we have an SEC, an audit­ing indus­try, and very stiff penal­ties for non-com­pli­ance. Why should work­ers, for­eign or Amer­i­can, be treat­ed as less impor­tant than shareholders?”

As for Bosch’s Indi­an work­ers, Kamath and his attor­ney, Daniel Hutchin­son, say they are going to keep fight­ing for the employ­ees ille­gal­ly denied their tax refunds.

The Indi­an cit­i­zens who Bosch brought to the Unit­ed States have con­tributed to the U.S. econ­o­my and helped Bosch grow and pros­per in Amer­i­ca,” stat­ed Daniel Hutchin­son. All Bosch employ­ees should receive their full wages, and that includes the tax refunds they are enti­tled to. These employ­ees deserve to be treat­ed fair­ly, and not have their liveli­hoods threat­ened for insist­ing that Bosch com­ply with the law.”

UPDATE: In response to a request for com­ment, Bosch sent Work­ing In These Times the fol­low­ing statement:

We are aware of this issue. It is pre­ma­ture for us to share fur­ther details as a law­suit has been filed.

Mean­while, we would like to state that the plain­tiffs’ charges are a mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the facts. Bosch has act­ed in a law­ful man­ner and we are con­fi­dent in our position. 

We reas­sure our stake­hold­ers, includ­ing our val­ued asso­ciates, that the com­pa­ny has and will act fair­ly. As an employ­er, Bosch is fair and abides by the legal require­ments in all coun­tries. We ensure equal oppor­tu­ni­ties for our employ­ees worldwide.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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