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Why Indian IT firms may face bigger US visa hurdle this year

June 29, 2015 11:27 IST

According to experts, while allegations against Indian IT firms of visa misuse are nothing new, this time the scrutiny could be much greater

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that two of the largest Indian IT companies Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) could be investigated by the United States Department of Labor for alleged misuse of a temporary work visa permit, the H-1B. According to experts, while such allegations are nothing new, this time the scrutiny could be much greater. While some experts are dismissing the noises as mere rhetoric before the upcoming presidential elections, others feel that the public opinion is more anti-Indian IT companies than before.

The 74-year-old Jesse Jackson, who was a close aid of Martin Luther King and worked closely with him during the civil rights movement, has now taken up the cause of discrimination in technology jobs in the US. Donna Conroy, executive director of the Chicago-based tech advocacy group Bright Future Jobs said that Jackson, who ran for presidency and earlier served as a shadow US Senator for the District of Columbia, has engaged over two dozen technology companies, including the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Google, and is petitioning the industry to release their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) report.

"Equality is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and essentially gives the right to all US citizens to take a company to court for blocking them because of race, gender, national origin and age," she said. Conroy added that though this movement was broader than just the visa issue, Jackson was exerting public pressure to stop discriminatory practices, including those involving temporary work visas. "In my opinion, the class action lawsuits against Infosys and TCS are very serious since they are Title 7 (based on equal employment opportunity) and the filings made by the companies show that around 90 percent of their workforce is of South Asian origin and they may have to prove that they are not discriminating," Conroy said.

In an email statement, the Infosys spokeswoman said that the company was committed to complying with US immigration laws. "The US Department of Labor regularly selects a percentage of visa and labour condition applications for extra scrutiny in this industry, and we work closely with the DOL to assist them in this activity in the ordinary course of our business. We have received no indication of any broader investigation of Infosys visa practices," the statement said.

A TCS spokesperson said that the company was in the silent period and referred to the previous statement issued by the company on the issue. "TCS maintains rigorous internal controls to ensure we are fully compliant with all regulatory requirements related to US immigration laws, including those related to H-1B visas," the statement said.

It was also recently reported that due to the mounting public pressure, Disney reversed a decision to replace 35 American IT workers with H-1B guest workers at its ABC broadcasting offices. The news comes after the company was massively criticised for the recent replacement of 250 technology workers with H-1B guest workers at Disney's Theme Parks division.

Ron Hira, an expert on immigration issues and chair of the department of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology said that though allegations against Indian companies had been around for some years now, there were a few differences this time around. While the Senate Judiciary Committee is chaired by Senator (Chuck) Grassley, who has sought H-1B reform for many years, the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration is chaired by Senator (Jeff) Sessions, who has more recently become concerned with H-1B abuses. While their predecessors never took a hearing on this issue, the two took a hearing on the need for better protection in the H-1B programme as recently as March, said Hira.

He added that the wide media coverage of three prominent companies, Southern California Edison, Fossil Group, and Disney - which were accused of displacing American technology workers, had added to the intensity of the issue. "Now more than ever there is an understanding by the American public that the H-1B programme is being abused and the abuse is widespread."

As far as the investigation by the Department of Labor was concerned, he said that there was not much public information about the investigation. "The Obama Administration has dragged its feet before initiating the investigation." But, if there are findings of violations, the administration can debar the violators from using the H-1B programme. And if there are findings that no violations occurred, the onus would be on Congress to change the law.

Commenting on the reports of the investigation, Nasscom President R Chandrashekhar had earlier said, "Attempts are being made to portray the contribution of Indian IT companies in a negative light and it is also unfortunate if this kind of a thing creates an impression that Indian industry is being hounded by American authorities, which can have an impact on the trade relations that the two nations share." He had added that Indian companies had also contributed hugely in maintaining competitiveness of US companies, which had given them the stability to create jobs. "We need to make the contribution of Indian IT industry better known and perhaps step up our efforts in this direction." Chandrashekhar said that the trigger for this could be the upcoming elections in the US.

Hira opined that the belief of Indian companies that this was just pre-election rhetoric had been correct in the past, "but no one really knows what will happen this time around.

Visa blues

Surabhi Agarwal in New Delhi
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