For a man with a master's degree who works in the high-tech industry, Satish Appalakutty lives frugally. He shares a small, sparsely furnished apartment with three other Indian computer programmers, sleeping two to a bedroom. Like them, he is saving for the day when he will either go back to India or, if good fortune allows, become a permanent U.S. resident and start his own company.

"Most of the Indians I know here are living this way," the 25-year-old Bombay native said as his apartment shook from the rumble of an elevated commuter train about 30 yards from his front door.

Appalakutty and his roommates are among thousands of foreign workers who enter the United States every year under a controversial visa program that allows them to work here temporarily. In some ways, they are the high-tech incarnations of the braceros of old, those laborers who were brought in to toil on American farms during and after World War II.

Instead of Mexico, the new techno-braceros come from countries such as India, China and the Philippines, and they tend to be well educated and highly skilled. The information technology industry here in Silicon Valley considers their skills vital to the competitiveness of U.S. companies in an increasingly cutthroat global market.

But like their low-tech predecessors, today's migrant cyberworkers constitute a vulnerable group that can be easily exploited.

Moreover, labor advocates and other critics say the program has been widely abused. Far from having exceptional skills, they contend, most computer workers brought in under it are run-of-the-mill programmers whose availability serves to hold down wages in a tight labor market.

These workers are at the heart of a heated debate over the work force needs of America's information technology sector. The issue has sharply divided congressional Republicans, who have been wrangling over proposed legislation to raise a 65,000-a-year cap on a temporary visa category, called H-1B, that is used to bring in thousands of foreign computer programmers.

In a compromise announced Friday, House and Senate Republicans agreed to raise the cap gradually to 115,000 over four years and require companies that use the program heavily to attest that they have tried to recruit Americans and have not laid off U.S. employees in order to hire H-1B workers.

The debate also reflects some of the broader social questions and power struggles -- between business and labor, for example -- that have arisen as the nation tries to absorb one of the greatest waves of immigration in U.S. history. Although H-1B visas are meant to grant only temporary status, they allow for stays of up to six years and often are used as a stepping stone to legal permanent resident status, a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship.

The program is designed to help companies fill specialized jobs for which American workers are not available. Technology firms say it is crucial to their industry, allowing them to recruit "the best and the brightest" from around the world.

Chandra Sekhar, a former H-1B worker from India who settled here and co-founded a high-tech company called Exodus Communications, argues that the primary motive for bringing in foreign programmers is "getting the right people" and that hiring them "at a good price" is secondary. "I'd better be allowed to hire who I think is right for my company," he said. "We want the least amount of government interference."

According to foreign workers, recruiters and U.S. officials, the high-tech braceros generally earn less than their American counterparts, despite laws requiring employers to pay them "prevailing wages." The workers are beholden to the employers who sponsor their visas in what the system's critics describe as a form of indentured servitude. If they wish to move to another company, they not only must obtain a new work visa, but often must pay a penalty of $10,000 to $20,000 to their original employer.

To keep them from seeking higher pay elsewhere, employers frequently dangle the promise of sponsoring them for "green cards," denoting much-coveted status as legal permanent residents. This gives the companies enormous leverage, since the process is a lengthy one and must be started over from scratch if the worker moves to another employer. Some companies also promise recruits specific jobs, then put them "on the bench" with small allowances while they try to farm them out as subcontractors.

The program generates few formal complaints from H-1B workers, however, since they generally earn much more here than they could in their homelands, and because many are reluctant to offend employers who hold the keys to their future. Still, these workers are quick to recognize inequities in their treatment.

Appalakutty, who holds a master's degree in computer management from the University of Poona near Bombay, is paid $50,000 a year by his contracting agency. That is a fortune in India, where he had been earning less than $3,000 a year, but falls well below the approximately $70,000 that he says Americans or permanent residents with his education level make for the same kind of work.

He said he is still considering whether to seek sponsorship for a green card. He knows he needs it if he is ever to realize his dream of starting his own software company. But he is wary of being tied to an employer while waiting for it.

"Sometimes a company takes advantage of you because they know you're stuck to that company," he said.

Besides receiving lower starting pay, H-1B workers complain of getting fewer and smaller raises, remaining mired in relatively menial jobs and, as salaried employees, having to work long hours without overtime.

"H-1Bs are expected to work harder," said a Filipino immigrant who works for a Japanese computer firm. "Usually the people who stay late are the non-Americans."

For many American workers, particularly older ones, such expectations are precisely the problem. They complain of age discrimination and of having to compete with foreigners who are willing to accept lower salaries and work longer hours.

Bill Halchin, 48, recently moved to Silicon Valley from Texas after being unemployed for four months and now works as a computer consultant here. He feels employers overlook valuable experience when they "try to do it on the cheap" by recruiting young H-1B workers or Americans just out of college.

At his previous job, Indian co-workers complained to him that "we're treated like slaves here," Halchin said. The preference of some firms for H-1B workers makes it difficult for U.S. citizens to get jobs there and "just drives down salaries," he said.

The older programmers have watched as a growing corps of foreign workers has changed the face of Silicon Valley. Here, programmers from China, Russia, India and elsewhere tap away at desktop computers in close proximity with Americans, but tend to stick together by nationality outside the office. Many of the Chinese, who seem to predominate among the valley's foreign high-tech workers, can program in the languages of computers but speak little English.

The new demographics can be seen even more vividly in the sea of Asian and South Asian faces at the commuter train stations near Appalakutty's apartment, a tide of humanity that reflects the more than 35 percent of Silicon Valley programmers and computer engineers who are foreign-born. At his middle-class complex of two-story apartment blocks, Chinese and Indian immigrants account for about 65 percent of the residents, Appalakutty says.

In his own second-floor apartment, the influences of Indian culture mix with those of a bachelor, cyberworker lifestyle. As in India, shoes are left at the door. The living room furniture consists of a television and a stereo. The walls are unadorned except for an Indian calendar, a poster of the Golden Gate Bridge and, in a small dining area, a whiteboard above a cluttered dinette table and a few chairs. Lying in a corner are a basketball and a deflated balloon left over from a roommate's recent birthday party.

One challenge for Indian newcomers is food. "We're mostly vegetarians," said Raghaban Srinivasan, 24, who moved into the apartment when he arrived from Bombay seven months ago. Indian restaurants and grocery stores have sprouted around the valley to meet the need, but fast-food choices remain scanty. McDonald's, he lamented, "doesn't have a veggie burger."

Still, Srinivasan speaks in awestruck tones of what he has found in this high-tech Mecca.

"It's been a wonderful experience," he said. "I drive past companies like Intel and IBM every day. It's thrilling. All the technology in the world originates here. It inspires you and you can really think big."

But life in the valley is expensive. The two-bedroom apartment the Indians share rents for $1,600 a month, and better ones they have looked at cost $2,500 a month.

Sitting on dining chairs in their bare living room, Appalakutty and Srinivasan agree that if growing numbers of Indians are taking up computer programming, it is not necessarily because they have better skills than young Americans. Often, they say, it is because they are compelled to by their families.

"Here, you choose to live more after your heart," Srinivasan said. "Back home you end up doing something you are asked to do. . . . You have a family decision in many cases. There's a lot of pressure."

The biggest employers of workers like the two roommates are agencies known as "job shops," many of them subsidiaries of Indian companies or owned by Indian immigrants. These firms import programmers to hire out as "temps" at substantial profits. The agencies here typically charge client companies fees at least three times higher than what they pay the workers, according to employees and recruiters. The client firms benefit by getting workers with specific skills for the length of a project, thereby avoiding outlays for training and benefits.

"These companies are misusing the H-1B process," said Dominique Black, who runs a high-tech personnel placement firm in Silicon Valley. "Importing advanced skills is absolutely essential to our national economy. Hiding behind that to bring in mid- and lower-level skills is a fraud."

"A lot of the H-1B process smells of indentured servitude," he said. "Should companies hold out the prospect of American citizenship and in exchange put people in a weak bargaining position? That's the real issue."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district covers Silicon Valley, said she was surprised to find firms she had never heard of heading the list of H-1B visa sponsors. Among them are HCL America (the initials stand for Hindustan Computers Ltd.), a subsidiary of an Indian firm that occupies an imposing, fortress-like building in Sunnyvale. Although immigration law requires companies to make public their records on H-1B visa applications, an HCL America official declined to tell a reporter the name of the firm's chief executive, Arjun Malhotra, much less any information about its H-1B workers.

The owner of another company on the list, Lewis P. Wheeler of Pittsburgh-based Computer People Inc., insisted that the Indian programmers he recruits do not take jobs from Americans or receive lower wages -- at least not after they have been in the country for awhile and learn their market value. He said U.S. companies often prefer to hire Indians because they are "better at getting themselves educated" in hotly demanded skills.

Manuel, a 29-year-old Filipino who did not want to be further identified for fear of retaliation by his employer, relates a different experience. He was recruited in Manila two years ago for an H-1B programming job here, but arrived to find there were no openings for him and dozens of other recruits. He said they were given $100 a week while "sitting on the bench" for three months, then paid $20 an hour when their agency succeeded in hiring them out. An independent contractor would make at least $35 an hour for the same work, Manuel said.

In addition, he said, the programmers were required to pay the American-owned agency $10,000 to $20,000 in "breach of contract" penalties if they took a job elsewhere. "That's why lots of people were afraid to jump ship," he said. "It sounds like slavery."

John Fraser, acting chief of the Labor Department's wage and hour division, said that although the department does not believe it is legal to keep H-1B workers "on the bench" without salaries, it has not been able to enforce payment. He said the legality of the breach-of-contract provisions depends on state contract law.

Initially, Manuel said, his agency paid its H-1B workers by the hour but later put them on a salary, while continuing to charge clients an hourly rate. This meant that "no matter how many hours you work, you don't get any overtime."

Manuel, who shares a house with another programmer and his family, said that like many firms, his agency used the prospect of a green card as a bargaining chip to keep employees from seeking better pay elsewhere. In his case, he said, there was no evidence that the agency had actually filed the sponsorship papers. "It looked like a scam to me," he said.

Some workers have been waiting for their employer-sponsored green cards for three years, Manuel said. "They can't jump ship," he said, "because they think the green card may come any day." MIGRANT CYBERWORKERS H-1B visas are granted to foreign workers in specialty occupations, most of which require college degrees. These include architects, engineers, accountants and doctors, though high-tech workers account for an increasing share. The number of H-1B visas hit its cap two years in a row. (This graphic was not available) Indians outnumber other applicants for H1-B visas. India

44% China

9% U.K.

5% Philippines 3% Canada

3% Taiwan

2% Japan

2% Germany

2% Pakistan

2% France

2% The biggest users of the program are agencies known as "job shops," which import high-tech workers and hire them out as temporary employees to computer companies. Six of the top seven are owned by Indian immigrants or are subsidiaries of Indian companies. Company and number of H-1B visas in fiscal '97 Mastech Systems Corp. 1,689 (U.S.-based company owned by Indian immigrants) Tata

1,285 (Subsidiary of Indian company) Syntel

750 (U.S.-based company owned by Indian immigrants) HCL America

396 (Subsidiary of Indian company) ComputerPeople Inc.

380 (U.S.-owned company) Wipro

368 (Subsidiary of Indian company) Indotronix

254 (U.S.-based company owned by Indian immigrants) SOURCE: Immigration and Naturalization Service