Indian Tech Workers in the US: Bourgeois Individualists, Saffron Trumpists, or Proletarian Insurgents?
From an organiser for Tech Workers Coalition, prospects for organising Indian tech workers in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
Technology is the core of contemporary global capitalism. The tech industry is both a central engine of profits, as well as the key driver of the restructuring of other industries and the disruption of their labour markets. The largest and most dynamic firms today are all tech companies, a marked shift from previous decades when the top companies were in the financial or energy sectors. And no corner of the economy, whether it is transportation, advertising, or retail, has been left untouched by the tech industry’s products and services. Developing a strategy to confront, disrupt, undermine, and/or appropriate the tech industry must be a critical aspect of any broader revolutionary struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
The global tech industry revolves around the San Francisco Bay Area, where most of the biggest tech firms are based, embedded in a sprawling ecosystem of investment funds and startups. It also just so happens that Indian workers make up a major component of the white-collar labor force in this key nexus of global capitalism. Indeed, over the past few decades, a close association has developed between Indian Americans and the tech industry. We are disproportionately represented among tech’s white-collar labour force, writing and maintaining the code that runs data centers, personal electronics, online commerce, warehouses, search algorithms, and social media networks.
Tech workers in general have typically been cast as a largely privileged and elite group. But recently, a rising tide of activism and organising has emphasised the “worker” in the “tech worker”. Tech workers have been organising collectively to fight against poor management, precarious contracts, sexual harassment, and unethical products. And upstart networks like Tech Workers Coalition have emerged to help coordinate and magnify the growing movement, emphasising the importance of autonomous rank-and-file organising. It is thus an opportune time to develop projects that agitate, organise, and mobilise Indian techies along radical and progressive lines, in ways that connect our specific experiences as a racialised subset of the tech workforce to a broader working-class movement.
For immigrants and expatriates, the obvious crux issue is immigration policy, especially the H-1B visa. This visa, designed for companies to hire specialised workers from outside the US for a limited number of years, is heavily used by the tech industry to import Indian tech workers. The system is in dire need of a progressive overhaul, not just because of its exploitative nature, but also because its controversial status is being leveraged by both white xenophobes and reactionary desis to further their agendas. Nativists, basking in the rise of Trump, use the H-1B issue to spread xenophobia among white tech workers, blaming immigrants for depressing tech wages and stealing jobs. Meanwhile, there is an opposite but parallel reaction among a certain segment of desi tech workers who resist xenophobia by appropriating it, supporting Trump and distinguishing themselves as “good”, legal immigrants, who ought to be put above “bad” undocumented ones.
The nativist narrative is built on a kernel of truth, in that the visa does indeed allow for the undercutting of wages. But what the narrative misrepresents is that this has nothing to do with the foreignness of the worker, and everything to do with how the H-1B visa locks in workers into something analogous to indentured servitude, where it is nearly impossible to leave a company without risking deportation – which makes it dangerous and unviable for H-1B workers to engage in serious wage negotiations, or resist pressure to work strenuous hours. A movement to reform or overhaul the H-1B and other visas and give immigrant workers the same freedoms and rights as other workers would thus also benefit tech workers as a whole, empowering a significant number of them to engage in collective action. This kind of solidarity-based working-class politics can also diffuse the divisive rhetoric of “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants”, emphasising and building on the shared interests of all workers in uniting against xenophobia and nationalism – which undermines us all.
Resisting the impulse to cast Indians as a “model minority” is also a key issue for those of us who were born and/or raised in the US. This stereotype, which is used as a cudgel against movements against white supremacy and institutional racism, is inherently connected with the over-representation of Indians and other Asians in the tech labor force. The apparently successful entry of Indians into a supposedly stable middle-class profession is used as proof that the American Dream of individual achievement under capitalism is alive and well. But remarkably, the actual history of the intersection of India, immigration, and technology is a direct refutation of this bourgeois individualism. As I’ve analysed in this essay for Jamhoor, the close association between the Indian American diaspora and tech work is a direct result of the independence movement’s use of science and technology, and the postcolonial Indian state’s development plans. Furthermore, this position was one that was explicitly anti-imperialist, at least until around the 1970s. The importance of technoscientific labor was due to its potential collective socio-political benefits, rather than as a way to pursue a successful individual career.
Today, this anti-imperialist undercurrent has faded away, but it could still provide a powerful historical grounding for contemporary efforts to politicise and radicalise the Indian techno-scientific diaspora. There is nonetheless an undeniable hollowness to the actual purpose of the tech industry. At the end of the day, no amount of flash and flair can cover up the fact that most of its products are fundamentally based around advertisements – a far cry from the utopian images of artificial intelligence, robotics, and space travel that technoscience tends to embody in popular culture. This gap between the promise and reality of technology is part of what is driving the current tech workers movement. This gap is even bigger for those of us who want to uphold the legacy of the anti-imperialist struggles of our homelands – or even just maintain some kind of truth to our roots. Bringing back the anti-imperialist legacy of Indian technoscience could thus be an effective strategy to unsettle the bland acceptance of the tech industry as it operates under capitalism.
While organising Indian workers in Silicon Valley is a powerful idea, the obstacles and contradictions must also be acknowledged. Nationalism, communalism, and casteism are problems here, just as they are in India, especially with the rise of Hindu nationalism to state power in the last decade. Indeed, these forces may be even bigger obstacles to radical worker organising among the diaspora in the Bay Area, given that the immigration filter tends to select educated, upper-caste communities. Similarly, overcoming bourgeois individualism among Indian tech workers may be easier said than done, given the disproportionate number of Indians at the elite heights of the tech industry, such as Vinod Khosla, Sundar Pichai, and Satya Nadella.
Nonetheless, the stakes are too high to ignore the position of Indian workers in the Bay Area’s tech industry. And indeed, if the experience of organising in tech more broadly over the past few years is any indication, it is that there are more people in our communities than we think who are frustrated and agitated about the present state of things, and are ready to fight in solidarity with all workers for a better world.
R.K. Upadhya is an engineer, writer, and organiser in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a member of Tech Workers Coalition and the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action.
This is part of Jamhoor’s Special Issue on Politics in Diaspora