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Rajkamal Rao | Updated on March 09, 2018

The big block It ends up hurting both sides Lightspring/shutterstock.com

The tech worker visa programme is a crucial pillar in US-India commerce. Nasscom must see the headwinds and act

The Indian information technology industry has been applauding US President Barack Obama’s latest assurances to reform the L-1B visa through executive action. But industry watchers probably missed an obscure event on March 17, in Washington, DC.

The occasion was a routine hearing of the US Senate Judiciary Committee with a subject that raised many eyebrows — ‘Immigration Reforms Needed to Protect Skilled American Workers’.

During the last three years, action on immigration reform has vacillated from the halls of Congress to the executive branch and, now, to the courts with no definitive answer to two vexing questions: How does the US handle its undocumented population of 11 million people? And, how much and what kind of legal immigration is needed?

Much to lose

The stakes are high. Under committee scrutiny were two visas popular with Indians and the Indian IT majors — the H-1B and L-1B. Unlike the H-1B visa, there is neither an annual cap on the number of L-1B visas, nor is there a prevailing wage requirement.

When the business-friendly Republicans won big last year to take over the US Senate, many thought that with the House already under Republican control, at least the tech worker high-skilled visa questions would be quickly resolved.

In fact, the opposite has happened. This is largely due to a campaign promise made by Mitch McConnell, the new Republican leader.

The Senate has now returned lawmaking to the old, deliberate and traditional ways of the institution — to first draw up a matter in committee, hold hearings, make amendments, pass it out of committee and then vote the Bill up or down in the full Senate, after amendments are allowed during floor debates.

The March 17 hearing was timed well for maximum political impact. On April 1, the US government is scheduled to award the next fiscal year’s H-1B visas to applicants. In 2013, the 85,000-visa cap was reached within a week.

American concerns

The powerful Judiciary Committee — where any meaningful immigration overhaul has to take birth — is now chaired by Senator Chuck Grassley, an ardent critic of the H-1B visa.

The Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship is headed by Senator Jeff Sessions, the strongest opponent of tech visa reform.

Both senators oppose expanding the H-1B and L-1 programmes on the grounds that massive abuse has resulted in cheap foreigners displacing American workers.

Their opposition is a result of media stories such as the one in February, in Computerworld, which described how Southern California Edison, a company often listed in Computerworld’s ‘Best Places to Work’, laid off 500 American IT workers and replaced them with H-1B employees.

The story quoted Jim Jefferies, the president of a leading association of electric and electronics engineers, IEEE-USA, “Nobody can claim Americans could not be found to do these jobs — Americans were doing these jobs.”

The opponents

The star witness at the Grassley hearings was a person well known to anyone who follows the Indian IT industry: Jake Palmer, the whistleblower who revealed Infosys’ business visa practices that ultimately led to a settlement with the US government.

And then there was the voice of organised labour.

Richard Trumka, the president of the 12 million-member AFL-CIO, in a scathing USA Today article two years ago had blasted US tech companies such as Google and Facebook that have lobbied for increases in H-1B visas saying, “This is not about innovation and job creation. It is about dollars and cents.”

Trumka — in a rare alliance of conservative Republicans with progressive labour unions — testified at the hearing.

Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Senate Democrat has separately teamed up with Grassley to author the Durbin/Grassley Bill.

This, in contrast to Obama’s L1-B announcement, would limit the number of H-1B and L-1B employees that an employer of 50 or more workers in the US may hire, establish a prevailing wage requirement for L-1B workers and increase the Department of Labor’s authority to investigate applications for fraud.

Missing the point

The public relations response of US clients and the IT outsourcing majors to these headwinds has been shockingly inadequate and sometimes disingenuous.

They appear not to realise that they have a significant role to shape the future of tech visas or else risk giving their opponents a chance to prevail. As an election year approaches, they need to adopt a comprehensive crisis management approach and resort to a disciplined campaign to address several ills.

First, they should renounce all visa abuse and embrace a zero tolerance approach to it. Every job position that may be attractive to H-1B visa holders must be posted on a company’s website, truly open to American workers and be available to job banks, with clear job descriptions.

When companies hire students on the Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa reserved for science technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates, they should commit to offering them marketplace wages and workplace protections otherwise guaranteed to American workers.

And no matter how attractive an SCE-like contract is appealing to IT outsourcers, they should walk away from it. In effect, India’s IT industry body — Nasscom — should not make it all about dollars and cents.

The tech worker visa programme is a crucial pillar in US-India commerce.

It is time Nasscom stepped up its game to help preserve, protect and improve it.

The writer is MD, Rao Advisors LLC

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Published on March 26, 2015
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