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India, US discuss H1-B visa reforms

Changes to the H1-B visa system on the cards; services company CEO says change could be positive

India, US discuss H1-B visa reforms
Changes to the H1-B visa scheme have been mentioned by Trump, but at present the scheme remains unchanged.

India has raised concerns with the US government over changes to the H1-B visa program.

India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed a US Congressional delegation from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in a meeting in the US this week.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also raised the issue, stressing that H1-B workers are highly skilled professionals and legal migrants, and should be treated as such.

Donald Trump has promised action to reform the H1-B visa program, which allows skilled technical workers to take temporary employment in the US, over claims that the program is abused to source cheap labour from overseas at the cost of American jobs.

The US Labor Department is tightening controls over the scheme, including streamlining information collection from H1-B applicants and improving transparency and oversight of the scheme.

A private member's bill before the US Congress also seeks to increase the minimum salary for H1-B workers from $60,000 at present to $130,000.

Indian IT professionals and India-based companies account for the vast of H1-B visas which are issued and renewed each year. While the scheme provides a large number of technical staff to US companies, primarily in IT and IT services, there has been criticism that the program has both cost US jobs and led to abuse of the H1-B workers.

A lack of transparency and multiple layers of subcontracting in the scheme has also led to situation with workers being paid far less than the minimum salary, working in job roles they are not contracted for and with little flexibility to change employers.

Ed Szofer, CEO of software development and technology advisory firm SenecaGlobal, which has headquarters in the US and development offices in India, said that the moves could be beneficial, if applied correctly.

Szofer said that while H1-B workers with good, marketable skills, and that are employed directly generally have a good experience of the scheme, the program has created situations bordering on abuse for some,

"It is safe to say that H1-B ICT workers with good and marketable skills are generally doing well, especially if they are employed directly by a company without any middlemen," he said.

"The issues the other workers face (those without a direct employment contract) are generally related to lower pay and uncertainty with the work. It is often the case that there are a lot of middlemen, leaving the H1-B holder without a well-defined position, creating a disadvantageous position. They will generally have significantly lower pay and instability in work assignments, and in the worst case scenarios this can even be somewhat abusive."

Szofer added that he believes the H1-B visa scheme will survive, based on demand for talent, although changes, including a possible increase in minimum salary for H1-B workers, could improve the situation.

"These changes, if implemented properly, will significantly improve the quality of H1-B visa holders and the US will only import talent that is really not available in the US. This, combined with outsourcing options, will provide the American businesses with a lot more value and make it a level playing field for the American talent. After all, this is why the H1-B program was established."

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