The great H1B visa farce

The debate over granting visas to Indians should first start with how technological exploitation will help India's development. Too bad its been about profit margins up till now.

April 19, 2013 12:11 am | Updated June 09, 2016 10:27 pm IST - Chennai

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There is something profoundly strange about Nirupama Rao’s recent attempt to assert—as a solution to the existential threat that now faces the Indian IT industry— that Indian IT companies are good and honest U.S citizens that play ‘a vibrant role in American communities’.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, however. As Indian Ambassador to the U.S, Ms. Rao’s >recent editorial in American newspaper USA Today tries to highlight how a ‘win-win situation’ is still possible, even in the face of impending crisis.

And crisis it is indeed. In a curious turn of events, the American market is now the valuable one, with the U.S Government >threatening to squeeze entry vis-à-vis the flow of H1B1 visas it grants.

Nevertheless, Ms. Rao’s arguments are highly misguided, and underneath her silver words, there is naught but dross. She is undoubtedly guided by an elementary principle of dialectics—that sometimes, the opposition between maintaining the old and changing things does not cover the entire field. Or, in simpler terms, that the only way to retain the ‘old’ is by changing things radically.

Therefore, the only way to truly preserve the profits that TCS, Infosys, HCL and Wipro are making is to abandon any nostalgia for the old narrative that if India needs to succeed, its IT industry must continue to grow. Her article, correspondingly, attempts to reframe the argument by trying to focus on how ‘highly-skilled foreign-born individuals contribute to U.S innovation and the American way of life’ and how the ‘IT industry is playing a vital role in bringing both nations together’.

Blown to bits

Unfortunately, Ms. Rao’s reasoning should hold no water with the average U.S and Indian citizen. As a good global citizen’ myself, I will attempt to lay out arguments from both perspectives.

First from the American. There’s nothing conscientiousness Americans care about more than equal rights. Most American companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook etc, pay their H1Bs excellent salaries—on par with native employees. More importantly, these companies also start green-card applications for their H1Bs as soon as the candidates become eligible. This is so that the employees start the process towards citizenship—which wouldn’t make sense if the purpose was to exploit the dependent status that H1B grants.

Therefore, there are companies which care about converting H1Bs into proper functioning citizens, who settle down, start paying a home mortgage and so on. And remember – this is what American citizens really care about, making sure immigrants contribute to the economy.

Sweatshops? Maybe.

This is in complete contrast to how most Indian IT firms function, however. Take TCS for instance, it tends to have predominantly Indian employees—who are not sponsored for green cards, and who are considerably underpaid. The average IT firm, whether Wipro, iGate or Infosys pays a $70,000-$80,000, compared to the average IT salary of $90,000- $100,000 that IBM, Accenture, Microsoft etc. pays.

But that is not even the most important part – the Americans realize that for every >Sabeer Bhatia or >Vinod Khosla , there are thousands of TCS, Infosys and Wipro employees who will not remain the U.S in the end. Like parasites, they spend less money and save it more—since it gives them greater purchasing power back when they return to India. (But again, even their spending in India is not true productive spending – but luxury spending in the form of BMWs and such.)

In the year 2011, for instance, Intel sponsored over 600 green card petitions, allowing foreign H1B employees to become U.S citizens and settle down there. Compare >this to Wipro , which only sponsored 67. Polaris? 66. HCL? 63. iGate US? 55. And the granddaddy TCS? A > grand total of 1 green card petition.

This flies in the face of Ms. Rao’s argument that Indian IT employees ‘contribute to American innovation and the American way of life’. While some do, no doubt, the overwhelming majority does not. It is a hopeful narrative—the stuff of dreams— but, again, it is simply not true. Darker realities like >the iGate controversy show the true underbelly of outsourcing, not the fairy princess tale of Silicon Valley.

Bill Gates and his ilk

Coming to the Indian perspective – the Indian IT industry narrative has given birth to the rise of the ‘liberal communist’ Indian elite. The global delivery model, that is, the reason Indian outsourcing has become successful, has paradoxically led upper-middle class software employees to believe that inequality can be surpassed if one merely works hard enough . And thus you have the IIT-IT narrative, where if one works hard to get into IIT, and then gets into IT; problems go away.

Take the classic Indian employee or student who goes forth to Western worlds to study or work. It shouldn’t be too hard to summon one to mind, any middle-class Indian citizen will have at least one family member or relative who can serve as an example. For these liberal communists, there are no inequalities, only concrete problems waiting to be solved in India; whether it is starvation or poor electricity.

After hitting the age of 50, they want their lives to “be more meaningful.” A sense of social responsibility and gratitude strikes them – they must give back to the society and community at all costs! It lets them believe that a lifetime of technology exploitation—for the weaker wages they initially worked at destabilizes global economics of scale—can be erased through simple humanitarianism. It flies in the face of true progressive movements (note the classic Indian middle class person’s disdain of the Naxalite movement) and proves to be a hindrance towards development.

So when this H1B visa crisis stares at us in the face, and Ms. Rao tells us that Indian IT firms contribute meaningfully to American jobs and the U.S Government’s revenue—we must take a long hard look at what an unlimited supply of H1B visas will mean to the development of India and consequential overcoming of inequalities.

This is truly what is at stake here, this is what Ms. Rao’s arguments seek to obfuscate. The H1B visa farce that we are debating now is not about social good or the well-being of the Indian and American communities. It isn’t even about the India growth story. It is about the profit margins of Indian and American IT companies—a narrative that needs to change.

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