Even as India reacted strongly against the proposed changes in the US visa regime, trade experts said the country could do little in multilateral forums like the World Trade Organization to appeal against implementation of such measures.
The proposed changes, anchored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin in the US Senate, will adversely impact Indian infotech companies like Wipro and Infosys. That is because firms cannot hire employees under H-1B and L-1 visas if more than half their workforce hold these two work visas.
Both the visas belong to the non-immigrant category. But H-1B visas are more lucrative, as they are for a longer duration of three years. L-1 visas are for a much shorter duration and are used by employees who are transferred to the US offices of a company. Indian infotech companies need to send professionals to onsite centres in US for long periods and hence look for H-1B visa-holders.
"Trade restrictive practices can be taken up in the WTO if they violate commitments made to the apex global world trade body. The US has not committed anything on visas or movement of professionals from other countries. Hence, other WTO members like India cannot take up the issue in the WTO," said R S Ratna, professor, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade.
Experts suggest that the only immediate solution to the issue is to tone down the proposed visa provisions.
"Current WTO provisions are related to market access. Whatever is being proposed in US is related to domestic regulations. If US companies say that restricting access to foreign professionals will adversely impact them, the government may listen to them," said Arpita Mukherjee, professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
For a long-term solution, Mukherjee called for greater emphasis on services negotiations at the Doha Round of world trade talks, so that countries have binding commitments on issues like this. The Doha Round talks have been in limbo since mid-2008 due to differences among members on market access ambitions.
Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, known for his hawkish stand in the WTO circle, reacted strongly against the proposed amendments. "The Bill will clearly restrict the ability of the Indian IT companies to compete in the US marketplace. This is certainly not in line with the US President's stand against protectionism at the recent London G-20 meeting and our desire to mainstream development in the Doha negotiations," he said in an e-mailed statement.