As Trump readies to take over, Indian IT firms in huddle over H-1B visa plan
Elements of the plan, which is still evolving, include giving Trump the number of jobs created in the US, hiring locally, and, importantly, how many they plan to every year.world Updated: Jan 09, 2017 20:36 IST
Indian information technology companies operating in the US are scrambling to put together a plan to appease President-elect Donald Trump before he assumes office on January 20, or tweets a nasty post on H-1B visas that could include a promise to hire more Americans.
Elements of the plan, which is still evolving, include giving him the number of jobs created in the US, hiring locally, and more importantly, how many they plan to recruit every year, and aggressively flag philanthropic and corporate social responsibility activities.
One company, which did not want to be identified, plans to double its intake of Americans in the next 18 months. Others spoke about ramping up their numbers also, but were not ready to share them till they had been firmed up.
“Trump likes tweeting numbers so let’s give him one or more,” said one of them, who, like all others interviewed for this article, spoke only on condition of anonymity out of fear of setting off a Twitterstorm from a trigger-happy president-elect.
These companies, which include TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL and scores of others, do not publicly discuss employee numbers, specially the breakdown of American and non-American hires.
Nasscom, the industry body, said they “directly supported” 158,000 US jobs in 2015.
“Every day without a tweet mention is a blessing,” said an executive who handles government affairs for an Indian IT firm, as he and others have watched Trump drive down stocks of Toyota with a tweet over its plans to make cars in Mexico.
They have also seen him force Ford to abandon plans to ship some operations abroad, and know how he zeroed in on Carrier, the air-conditioning giant, as his first target and made it cut back on plans to shift some of its manufacturing to Mexico.
There is a sense of impending doom, with Trump letting it be known in November that in his first 100 days in office, he will “direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker”.
He was talking about the H-1B visa programme, under which US-based companies hire highly skilled foreign workers, up to a maximum of 85,000 a year — 65,000 hired abroad and 20,000 from among foreign nationals studying in the US.
India is the largest single country source for these hires, by both Indian firms operating in the US and American companies such as Cognizant, IBM and others. But it’s the Indian companies, and their American partners, that get hit the hardest.
Critics of the H-1B programme have argued it was being abused by companies to hire cheaper workers from abroad, replacing local hands, either directly or through contractors by outsourcing to them those functions and jobs.
Though Trump has said he has used the programme himself for his businesses, his priority now was to protect American jobs, and his administration is packed with outspoken critics of H-1Bs, including Jeff Sessions, his nominee for attorney general.
Trump will move against H-1Bs but in the estimation of the Indian tech companies, the start, as he has said, will be investigations and “audits” by the labour department that most companies expect to survive, with some discomfort.
“It will mean a lot of paperwork and administrative burden,” said an executive of one of the biggest Indian tech companies, adding, “But that’s the cost of doing business and we will bear it without suffering a blow to our business model.”
But things could get hairy, should Trump decide to persist, which he might if the H-1B-haters of his administration persist as well, and move to bigger and more decisive actions, starting with some executive decisions and then go on to legislative action.
In their estimation, the Trump administration could slow down the H-1B visa process, or change definitions of qualifying criteria for other visa types for high-skilled labour such as L-1 and L-2, for intra-company transfer to the US.
But to cut the annual intake from the current 85,000, as Sessions proposed in a legislation he had moved in 2015 as a Republican senator, will require a larger effort through Congress, which is likely to be contentious and time-consuming.
Either which way Trump decides to go, the countdown will start when he assumes office on January 20, and Indian IT firms, which were found slow to rise to challenges in the past despite the US being their main market, are being prodded by outsiders as well.
Including the government of India that has indicated to them they need to deal with this threat expressly, and largely on their own as only they can, ramping up their communications and messaging through lobbying and whatever it takes.