Indian IT outsourcing companies may survive the change in US visa norms by tweaking their business models, but if the move comes through, it would mean the end of the “American dream” that generations of Indian techies have carried.
An opportunity to “work onsite” and “earn in dollars” has been a big lure for Indian engineers ever since the tech boom swept the country almost two decades ago. An American visa is a sign of career progression for an IT professional, often valued even more than an increment.
“For engineers from middle-class Indian families, it is a big aspiration to go overseas and work there. If the visa rules become tighter and Indian IT companies stop sending the same number of employees to the US as they do now, it will be a blow to the ambitions of many young engineers,” said Kris Lakshmikanth, founder and CEO of The Head Hunters India, an executive search firm.
Indian IT companies heavily depend on two categories of visa to send workers to the US: L-1, which allows a temporary intra-company transfer of a foreign worker to the US, and the H-1B, which lets the holder work in the US for up to six years and also change jobs.
The US policymakers now want to restrict the H-1B visa programme and tighten immigration laws.
In late January, multiple bills proposing a tightening of H-1B visa norms were introduced in the US Congress. One of the bills proposes a significant increase in the minimum wage of applicants, making it unfeasible for Indian IT companies to use this category.
On Jan. 30, reports of a draft executive order to revamp US immigration laws for foreign workers also surfaced.
While this isn’t the first time that such bills have been floated in the US, the possibility of it becoming a law is higher this time, given US president Donald Trump’s protectionist slant.
A better life
In 2006, Vivek Kumar (name changed) graduated in computer engineering and joined Cognizant. One main reason for him to join the New Jersey-based company was the prospect of working in the US, he says.
“When I was studying engineering, ‘onsite’ was a massive thing. Everyone wanted to go work in a foreign country for a few years and the US was seen as the most lucrative destination as that’s where most clients are,” Kumar told Quartz, requesting anonymity, as Cognizant does not authorise him to talk to media. “Right now, I think 30% of my engineering batchmates are working in the US.”
In 2011, Kumar was sent there for the first time on an L-1 visa, and in 2014, he got an H-1B. He believes he is now in a far better place, both professionally and financially, in comparison to most of his friends back in India. “The quality of life in the US is much better than in India. The biggest benefit of this move has been financial. I bought a house in Chennai four years ago and I have already paid off the entire loan. I know of people who take 20-25 years to pay the same loan amount,” he said.
For 27-year-old Preeti, an employee of Wipro who has been working in the US for two years now, it’s been a liberating experience. “I always wanted to travel alone, but back in India, I could not do it because I did not feel safe. But here in the US, I go on a solo trip almost every other month,” she said. Preeti did not wish her full name to be disclosed in this story as she is not authorised to talk to the media.
A US visa even improves nuptial prospects and draws heftier dowry. “Indian parents think having a US visa is some kind of an achievement. That’s probably because it assures a much higher salary. The minimum pay for someone on H-1B is $60,000, which translates to almost Rs40 lakhs. Who will pay a developer that much in India?” asked a 30-year-old engineer working with a mid-sized IT outsourcing company in Pune, requesting anonymity.
At any cost
Such is the lure that Indian techies are known to even seek divine intervention to get hold of visas. There are several “visa temples” across India that supposedly increase devotees’ chances in this.
The best-known is the Chilkur Balaji temple near Hyderabad, an IT hub in the southern Indian state of Telangana. The ritual here includes making 11 laps around the inner temple and offering coconuts to the deity. If the visa comes through, the pilgrim must return to make another 108 laps.
Some engineers confess that they settled for mundane work for years just because they were promised a US visa at the end.
“It’s the ultimate carrot that is dangled to retain employees. The moment you put in your papers at an IT company, your manager will tell you “we were going to start your H-1B visa process in three months.” And most people decide to stay back because of that reason,” the Pune-based engineer said. “It’s an even bigger incentive than increment or promotion.”
As Indian IT companies brace themselves for a tighter visa regime, engineers are looking for the proverbial silver lining.
They hope that IT companies, which typically execute the more challenging work from client’s location and move only the mundane back-end jobs to India, will now start bringing some innovative work back home. “I could move back to India in a heartbeat if I get to do the same kind of work that I am doing here,” Kumar of Cognizant said.
Those looking for innovative work in India may also explore jobs in the booming startup ecosystem here.
But those who are still fixated with onsite opportunities may start looking at other countries like the UK, Australia or Canada, Lakshmikanth of The Head Hunters said.
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