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India wary of US visa bill impact on IT industry

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New Delhi/Washington/Bengaluru, Jan 31 : India on Tuesday said it has expressed its concern to the US over a bill to change rules on H-1B visas that will impact the IT industry and Indian techies working in America.

“India’s interests and concerns have been conveyed both to the US administration and the US Congress at senior levels,” said External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup in New Delhi.

The High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017, introduced in the House of Representatives by California Congressman Zoe Lofgren on Monday, calls for doubling the minimum salary of H-1B visa holders to $130,000 from the current minimum wage of $60,000 – a move that could impact Indian techies.

The bill, likely to be signed by President Donald Trump, would make it difficult for firms to use the programme to replace American employees with foreign workers, including from India, with lower wages.

The bill would require that employers first offer a vacant position to an equally or better qualified American worker before seeking an H1B or L-1 visa holder.

It would also establish wage requirements for L-1 workers and improve H1B wage requirements to encourage companies to hire qualified American workers and prevent them from using foreign workers as a source of cheap labour.

H1-B visas are issued to qualified professionals. A related visa is the L-1, which is given to employees of a company who are transferred to the US. Both of them are used extensively by Indian companies.

According to ComputerWorld magazine, nearly 86 per cent of H1-B visas for computer-related jobs and 46.5 per cent for engineering positions were given to Indians.

The US issues 85,000 H1-B visas every year, of which 20,000 are for master’s degree holders from US universities. Because of the large number of applicants – 236,000 in 2016 – the H1-B visas were issued through a lottery system.

As the export-oriented industry’s representative body, Nasscom, said the reform bill was fraught with challenges due to provisions that would nullify its objective of saving American jobs.

“The Lofgren Bill contains provisions that may prove challenging for the Indian IT sector and leave loopholes that will nullify the objective of saving American jobs,” asserted Nasscom in a statement here.

The US market generated about 60 per cent of the $108-billion export revenue for the $143-billion Indian IT industry for the last fiscal (2015-16).

Nasscom’s revised export guidance is $117-119 billion for this fiscal (2016-17).

“Though the bill has to go through an extensive legislative process at the US Congress and the Senate for becoming law, it does not treat all IT service firms with H-1B visa holders equally and the provisions are biased against H-1B dependant firms,” asserted Nasscom President R. Chandrashekhar in a statement here.

Assuring the industry of engaging with the US administration and its lawmakers through the Indian government, the former IT secretary said the apex body would highlight their value contribution as a ‘net creator’ of jobs in the US.

“The Indian IT sector has helped American businesses by providing high-skilled IT solutions in order to innovate, open new markets, expand their operations and creating thousands of new jobs for Americans,” claimed Chandrashekhar.

The bill also does not address the acute shortage of STEM-skilled workers in the US, which led all companies to have a calibrated hiring of locals and bridging the skills gap with skilled workers on non-immigrant visas, including H-1Bs.

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Echoing the Indian government’s and the industry’s concerns over the reform visa bill, Tech Mahindra Chief Executive C.P. Gurnani, however, hoped things would become better once Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Trump in June.

“President Trump (already) had a conversation with Modi. I am sure they will meet very soon. Both of them have a background (Trump has a background of running businesses and Modi is a pro-business prime minister) and both will definitely find a meeting ground,” Gurnani told BTVi in an interview.

Reiterating that Modi was not shy of raising issues, Gurnani said he believed the meeting could happen as early as June and there could be a positive outcome.

“India-incorporated IT companies have invested around $2 billion in the US and are able to create about 100,000 jobs in America,” added Gurnani.

The legislation, Lofgren said, removes the “per country” cap for employment-based immigrant visas so that all workers are treated more fairly and to move to a system where employers hire the most skilled workers without regard to national origin.

“It (bill) offers a market-based solution that gives priority to those companies willing to pay the most. This ensures American employers have access to the talent they need, while removing incentives for companies to undercut American wages and outsource jobs,” she said.

Trump’s spokesperson Sean Spicer said H-1Bs and other visa are “a part of larger immigration reform effort that the President would continue to talk about through executive order and through working with Congress.”

“There is an overall need to look at all these programmes and you will see both through executive action and through comprehensive legislative measures, a way to address immigration as a whole and the visa programmes,” said Spicer.

Before assuming office in January, Trump said one of his first tasks would be to issue an executive order for the Labour Department to investigate visa abuses that he asserted undercut the wages of American workers.

Along with H1-B, Spicer mentioned spousal and others as categories of visas that Trump may act on.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s administration permitted spouses of H1-B visa-holders to get permission to work.

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EU top diplomat warns Trump against recognizing Jerusalem as Israeli capital

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Federica Mogherini
Federica Mogherini (Credit European Commission)

The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said on Tuesday that “any action that would undermine” peace efforts to create two separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians “must absolutely be avoided.”

US President Donald Trump is considering recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Mogherini was speaking alongside US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was on a visit to Brussels, Reuters reported. “A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states,” Mogherini said.

The EU supports unlocking meaningful peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The EU’s 28 foreign ministers will discuss the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Brussels next Monday. A similar meeting will be held with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas early next year.

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Raise a toast, Trump is all for this climate treaty

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George Bernard Shaw once said that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. When the UN conference on the Montreal Protocol on the substances that deplete the ozone layer ended in Montreal on November 24, albeit in the wee hours of November 25, I thought this could also be said for Paris and Montreal, not only because of the French language but also the agreements signed there on global action on the climate.

The UN meeting in Montreal celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the success of the phase-out of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS). The meeting in Bonn a week before, after its 25 years of global efforts, was still wondering how to even finalise the rulebook to stabilise the climate and keep the temperature rise to not more than to 2 degrees Celsius before 2100, while making efforts to limit that rise to 1.5 degrees — the objective of the Paris Climate Agreement.

While US President Donald Trump is walking out of the keenly-negotiated Paris pact, he has surprisingly decided to support the Montreal Protocol, including its 2.0 version that now includes full-blast action against climate change. He has even agreed to take a nearly 25 per cent share of funding of over $500 million pledged by the developed countries to provide to the developing countries. The deal to provide $500 million over the next three years for the purpose was sealed in Montreal last week.

It was warm news in the freezing temperatures at Montreal in contrast to the cold winds blowing from the Bonn climate conference.

The extraordinary success story of the Montreal Protocol never seems to have a full stop. Though Trump never tweeted about it, this multilateral environmental accord, brokered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1987, was signed by the Republican President Ronald Reagan and fully supported by the Democrats.

Under the treaty, developed countries pledged all the incremental financial support to the developing countries during their transition away from ODS. More importantly, that pledge was honoured year after year without interruption, even during the global financial crisis. It has now reached a cumulative amount of $3.5 billion.

Developing countries responded by implementing the transition to ozone-friendly technologies. The protocol has already achieved its goal of phasing out nearly 100 percent of millions of tonnes of more than 90 man-made ODSs like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), used mainly in refrigeration, air conditioning, foams and solvents. The factories producing these chemicals have literally shut down.

If the slogan “Yes We Can” has a real-life example, it is this one. In one single generation, these ozone depleting chemicals were invented, their catastrophic impact on the stratospheric ozone layer that shields life on the Earth was scientifically identified, global action to phase them out was agreed through an international agreement, developing countries were provided by the developed countries all the incremental costs and technologies — and the phase-out of these chemicals was achieved exactly on the targeted year and day.

Never before has such an astonishing chain of actions been triggered and taken to its completion.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called it “…the single-most successful international environmental agreement to date”. Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment, during the opening ceremony on November 24, called the Montreal Protocol “a testimony of the spirit of togetherness of nations and humans”.

That “togetherness” has carried the Montreal Protocol’s success beyond the phase-out of ODS. Major ODS like CFCs are also Green House Gases (GHGs). Thus, their phase-out under the Protocol has, as a side benefit, also resulted in the permanent cumulative emission reduction of GHGs to the extent of 130 giga tonnes equivalent of carbon dioxide by 2010, compared to just about one giga tonne of GHGs reduction aimed by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol. In reality, GHGs increased during this period.

While the Montreal Protocol did successful market transformation to an ozone-friendly world, the Kyoto Protocol remained fatally flawed. The 2015 Paris pact, a follow-up to the unfinished Kyoto Protocol, is still faltering and fudgy.

The “togetherness” highlighted by Solheim is conspicuous by its absence from climate agreements. However, it was ever evident under the Montreal Protocol. The latest achievement came when, in 2016, all 197 countries agreed to deploy the institutions nurtured under the Montreal Protocol for the last 30 years to now phase-down the deadly GHG — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — some of which are more than 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The developed countries, led by the US, pledged financial and technology support.

That was an unprecedented decision, because the seminal objective of the Montreal Protocol was to get rid of ODS and not GHGs. “It was like using Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear weapons to control the trade in drugs and crime,” said an African environmental law expert, commenting on the decision in Kigali. The Montreal Protocol, in other words, was used as a “surrogate mother” to carry the seeds of the Paris pact to deliver a climate-friendly baby.

There are two-fold reasons for that unusual action: First, HFCs were introduced as substitute for CFCs and other ODS due to their zero-ozone depleting potential. The countries therefore considered that getting away from HFCs would correct their unintended error and contribute to mitigation of climate change. Second, the developed countries agreed to the incremental funding for the developing countries for their — yet another — transformation from HFCs to non-HFCs.

Thus, the Montreal Protocol has now entered its version 2.0 and became the treaty to reduce the emissions of the most potent global warming gas — HFC — which, incidentally, is also one of the six groups of the GHGs under the Paris pact.

Developed countries will start reducing HFCs as early as 2019, while developing countries will start later. Phasing down HFCs under the Protocol is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, while continuing to protect the ozone layer. If the energy efficiency improvements due to use of non-HFCs in refrigeration and air conditioning appliances are taken into account, then the avoided warming would be even more. That will be equivalent of achieving at least 25 per cent of the objective of the Paris pact.

The world should now concede some cool points to President Trump and his administration amidst the warming and hot chaos.

By Rajendra Shende

(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, a former UNEP Director and an IIT Alumnus. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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Donald Trump declares North Korea state sponsor of terror

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The US President said the designation will impose further penalties on Kim Jong-un’s regime, saying it was long-overdue step and part of a “maximum pressure campaign” against the North.

North Korea will join Iran, Sudan and Syria on a list of countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”. The designation triggers sanctions including restrictions on US foreign assistance and a ban on defence exports and sales.

Mr Trump told reporters on Monday that the decision “should have happened years ago,” and called Pyongyang “a murderous regime”. He added that North Korea “must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development,” as well as its support for international terrorism.

US officials said the action was partly motivated by the killing of Mr Kim’s estranged half brother in a Malaysian airport this year, which was defined as an act of terrorism.

North Korea was last on the state-sponsored terror list in 2008, under the George W Bush administration. It was removed that year in a bid to salvage a deal halting its nuclear development.

Syria was added to the list in 1979, with Iran following five years later. Sudan was defined as such in 1993.

The administration debated the decision for months before the announcement, US officials told the Associated Press. State Department officials reportedly disagreed on whether the country met the legal requirements to be deemed a state sponsor of terror.

There must be more than one incident of state-sponsored terrorism for a country to be added to the list. The killing of Mr Kim’s half brother counted as one incident, but officials were divided over whether the treatment of American student Otto Warmbier constituted terrorism. Warmbier was returned to the US in a coma after 17 months in North Korean custody, and died shortly thereafter.

Tensions have risen between North Korea and the US this year, as Pyongyang progressed rapidly with its nuclear missile and bomb testing. The country tested its most powerful nuclear weapon yet in September, and is said to have developed missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the US mainland.

In August, after Pyongyang threatened to launch missiles into the water around the US territory of Guam, Mr Trump said the country would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. The remarks sparked concern in the American public, and aggressive comments from the North Korean regime.

American diplomats have attempted to soothe North Korea with dialogue, while also working to cut off funds for the country’s nuclear programme with sanctions. In September, the United Nations passed its most stringent sanctions yet against the country. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, vowed to pursue the “strongest possible” sanctions to deter North Korea’s nuclear programme.

“Today, we are saying the world will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea,” she said. “And today the Security Council is saying if North Korea does not halt its nuclear program, we will act to stop it ourselves.”

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