The Indian government has returned to the familiar-headline making lament that supplementary visa fee slapped by the US on skilled guest worker H-1B visas are discriminatory towards Indian IT professionals, even as Washington is bent on showing that a large number of such visas are cornered by body-shoppers whose broader aim is to help Indians emigrate to America.
The sticky matter of H-1B visas once again featured in talks when finance minister Arun Jaitely met US trade representative Michael Froman to discuss a raft of contentious issues, including a “totalisation agreement“ that India has been striving for. The agreement centers on Washington returning to Indian guest workers the money they have paid into the US Social Security system, which is lost if they return to India without establishing permanent residency .
New Delhi's back of the envelope calculations is that Indian professionals have paid more than $25 billion toward the Social Security fund over the past decade even as getting permanent residency has become harder.
But successive US administrations have pushed back against the demand for an agreement that India wants to conclude similar to the one Washington has with a few other countries. As it turns out, most of them are small countries (for eg Belgium) whose workers contribute only in the millions which the US does not mind repatriation. Returning billions from the cash cow that is India, with tens of thousands of guest workers streaming into the US every year, is a different proposition for Washington.
Besides, some US interlocutors have argued, many Indian workers are only too happy to pay in to the US Social Security system because they eventually hope to become permanent residents and gain citizenship, whereupon they get Social Security benefits if they have paid for a minimum of 40 quarters (10 years) into the fund.
New Delhi is on stronger ground on the visa fee issue considering that Indian nationals are the biggest recipients of the skilled guest worker visa and are disproportionately affected by the US Congress decision to impose a special fee of up to $4,500 on H-1B and L-1 visas -popular among Indian IT companies -to fund a 911 healthcare act and biometric tracking system.
New Delhi has threatened to take the dispute to the World Trade Organisation, a decision that even some large US IT companies are backing because lack of high-skilled guest workers is not only affecting their bottomline but also pushing jobs overseas, for which also they are taking flax and facing a squeeze from the administration.
What is mystifying though is why New Delhi has not bothered to strive for a bilateral visa agreement with Washington of the kind countries such as Chile, Australia, and Singapore have for their skilled workers. Although the numbers in those cases would be much smaller than anything involving India, officials conceded that New Delhi has never explored this route despite improved ties with Washington.
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