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US doesn't even talk about totalisation pact with India

July 05, 2012 12:46 IST

For all of the euphoria by both sides over the third US-India strategic dialogue in Washington, DC last month that was co-chaired by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, and the several collaborations announced in various areas and agreements initialed, when it comes to the totalisation agreement where over $1 billion has been contributed each year by Indian temporary workers in the US as social security payments over decades that has not been returned to them after they returned home, Washington continues to even talk about.

At a press conference before he left Washington, Krishna acknowledged that the US doesn't even "want to talk about it," when India brings up the subject and its desire to negotiate a totalisation agreement.

During a speech delivered on the eve of the strategic dialogue, in remarks to the US-India Business Council, Krishna said, as much as US businesses have concerns over various issues, "for our businesses, too, there are pressing issues: whether it is the worsening environment for mobility of professionals, the protectionist sentiments against the global supply chain in services industry, the refusal to even consider a social security agreement that affects the lives of 300,000 non-immigrant Indian professionals in the United States, the unresolved market access issues, or, the persisting presence of India in the Super 301 Priority Watch List and the US Department of Labor's list."

The Obama administration's point man for South Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake who provided a read-out of the strategic dialogue to journalists at the Foreign Press Center, when asked about this issue, where the US completely ignores India's request, said, "This is a legal question for us as well."

He noted that "there's a great imbalance in our systems right now, and so there are legal restrictions on what kind of agreements we can enter into with partner countries. But certainly, we have a dialogue with this and we understand the importance of this issue to our Indian friends."

When pressed on this and asked what "is the legal justification you mentioned for extracting a billion dollars annually from people who are ostensibly guest workers in terms of social security payments and what is the moral justification for not returning the money," Blake said there is "an ongoing dialogue on this."

But he was reminded by reporters that Krishna had made very clear that "the US refuses to even talk about this," Blake was on the defensive, saying, "Again, I don't want to make it sound like we are discriminating against Indians. I mean, these are taxes that are taken out of every single worker in the United States, and that's -- when you come to the United States, that's one of the things that you agree to do."

He argued, "That's just part of our system to make sure that taxes and social security and other -- are automatically deducted from your paycheck. And so I don't want to -- your question implies that we're somehow discriminating against Indians. Everybody is subject is to this…"

But when he was informed that the US has totalisation agreements with countries like Belgium where the monies are returned, and hence, why not with India, Blake reiterated, "Again, there's an imbalance in our system between -- in between what -- your system is configured completely differently from our own. If you want, I could have a chat with you offline, because it's -- it gets into very technical, complicated details."

"But essentially, for the moment, we're not in a position to be able to enter into a totalisation agreement with India, and we've explained the reasons why we can't do that. But we understand very well their concerns," he added.

Meanwhile, Blake went on the offensive regard recent reports and concern by Indian businesses, particularly IT companies that the US was discriminating against India in the issuance of H-1 B visas and the L-1 intra-company transferee visas, by arbitrarily cutting down of the number of visas issues in each category.

He asserted that "India now receives 65 percent of the worldwide total of H1-B visas. So I think that's a pretty commendable number and percentage, and in terms of the L-1 visas – the so-called intra-company transfer visas – India receives 37 percent of those -- again, 37 of the worldwide total."

Blake pointed out that "Congress is the one that determines the caps for H1-B visas, not the United States government. So -- and that cap has remained fairly steady for quite a long time now."

He said, "Again, we're doing everything we can within our own, within the law to give Indian companies fair access to the H1-B system, and I think that they have shown themselves more than capable of taking advantage of all the opportunities, and we continue to welcome those kinds of workers. And the real quibble, if I might say, has been more on the L-1 -- the intra-company transferees where the number of -- the rate of rejections has gone up slightly."

"And we have a refusal rate that's gone up a little bit because we've seen a higher level of unqualified applicants and in some cases some fraud. So naturally, we want to make sure that everybody that comes in is a qualified applicant and is coming for the purposes that are stated in the visa application."

Blake explained, "So we're looking at why that refusal rate seems to have gone up a little bit more but -- in response to the concerns that have been raised. But again, I'm a strong supporter of all of our consular officers and think they do a superb job."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC